Solid Gold: How Underworld's ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’ modified UK dance music eternally

In 1994, reside performances by UK dance acts have been large information. Electronic bands that straddled the divide between membership sounds and song-styled accessibility have been in vogue. The Prodigy, The Shamen, The Orb and 808 State all performed gigs moderately than DJ units — a gateway drug for indie children — and Orbital’s barnstorming set at Glastonbury transformed a good few to a lifetime of beats and bass. But there was nobody else fairly like Underworld who, with their third album (and first with DJ Darren Emerson), ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’, blended outlandish art-rock concepts with singular takes on home, techno and ambient. Twenty-five years previous, it’s aged gracefully, thanks partly to the band’s refusal to be trapped by style.

‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’ packed in every part from ‘Surf Boy’s delirious acid home, dub FX, and propulsive membership drums, to ‘Tongue’s denuded ambient sliver of dawn-rise guitar. It had ‘Cowgirl’ which, with its looped, layered vocals, spiky synth line and thundering percussion, may trigger golf equipment or live performance halls alike to erupt; and it had the mellow, bass-led funk of ‘River Of Bass’, a sonic balm to assuage sore heads post-rave. Knitting all of it collectively was an urge to experiment, and in addition a drive to hook within the listener with melodies and vocal phrases that stepped outdoors the diva samples or acid gurgles then so prevalent in dance data.  

On this album, Karl Hyde’s vocals have been a malleable instrument, in a position to swap from mellifluous tones to adopted personalities, imitating accents and conjuring evocative imagery with spoken phrase monologues. Hyde’s lyrics have been a wierd stream of consciousness, the results of listening in to personal conversations on public transport, then slicing up the phrases, William Burroughs fashion, and rearranging them into non-sequiturs spun out as tales. These phrases, paired with Underworld’s unearthly electronics, took on a unprecedented energy. As Dorian Lynskey mentioned in his 2014 Guardian characteristic across the album’s reissue, “Hyde is much less a frontman than a conduit for a torrent of photos, stray ideas and overheard dialogue whereas the music has an unlimited, architectural high quality, evoking railway tracks, alleyways, high-rises and secret corners”.