There aren’t many occasions when the artistic population of an entire musical genre is able to point to a single album and say it pretty much inspired everything that would matter in and about the genre thereafter, but that’s actually possible when it comes to dubnobasswithmyheadman – Underworld‘s third album. Dubnobasswithmyheadman didn’t just break the ground that techno, house, trance and ambient music would eventually occupy and develop, it is a keystone for each of those institutions. Without this album, a lot of the music considered to be staple to modern electronic music wouldn’t have gotten a foothold in pop and pop culture the way it did (the songs on this album appeared in a tremendous number of film and television soundtracks throughout the nineties, and thereby gave a lot of people who wouldn’t have had the chance to hear this music an opportunity to discover it), and it wouldn’t have gained the grip on popular imagination that it achieved or gotten the momentum to break through the glass ceiling which divides the underground from the mainstream. Without this album, Sneaker Pimps wouldn’t have had a sound to blanche and make safe and palatable for a generation of keyboard pattering isolationists [a.k.a. computer geeks –ed] and underage club kids like they did in 1996, David Bowie wouldn’t have had a sound to be reborn (again) with in 1997 and Propellorheads wouldn’t have had an existing framework on which to release Decksanddrumsandrocknroll in 1998. Dubnobasswithmyheadman isn’t just the frame of the building which houses all of these events and resulting institutions – it is the ground that the building rests on.
THAT, in a word, is important work, and it remains important and inspirational twenty years later too. It is for those reasons that Universal Music Enterprises released a mammoth, multi-disc box set commemorating the twentieth anniversary of dubnobasswithmyheadman earlier this year. However, for those who really want to get to the core of the music, the only way to go is with the two-plate vinyl reissue which was released alongside it. This album needs no added accoutrements.
Throughout the running of the vinyl reissue, listeners will be continually amazed by how fresh and crisp the album sounds, and how true to its original form (read: the remastering job is modest – not over-the-top or unbelievable as the sound on some of the other reissues which have come out this year have been) it remains. On the first side alone, the mix of “Dark & Long” sounds remarkable in its intimacy. Over a slick, smooth and streamlined ambient rhythm figure, singer Karl Hyde’s voice tickles listeners’ cochlea masterfully and instantly instills a feeling of calm and contentment so complete that one might almost wonder if it was chemically induced, somehow. On this reissue, it’s easy to fall into the song and find the vibe which drives it. That intimacy continues throughout “Mmm Skyscraper I Love You,” and listeners may find that the vibe inadvertently lulled them into a hypnotic state when the needle lifts, because it breaks the spell. Some listeners may curse and complain that this is the shortcoming of the medium as they rush to flip the side of the record, but they’ll find that they easily fall right back into their comfort zone after Side Two begins.
Back in that zone, Side Two is where the real jewels begin to glimmer. “Surfboy” strikes a balance between club, electronic, drug and dance musics and compresses it all down into a fantastic, pop-sized morsel for listeners to sample and savor. Here, snippets of surreal sampled beats converge into a sparkling poly-rhythm which rethinks the more regularly thuddy and clearly synthetic beats that club producers had relied upon so regularly before sliding a great, urgent, three-note bass line in to propel the song forward into a white, cosmic waiting room. Years later, electronic music fans would call this sound “chill out,” but here, in part because it feels so untested, the birth and development of the song feels incredibly exciting. That excitement gets validated when “Spoonman” (which bears no similarity to Soundgarden) takes over and pushes energy levels up before receding into “Tongue” to close the side. In that progression, listeners may begin to feel as though this album is built on a waveform, but won’t have any trouble with it at all. The peaks and valleys as they’ve been expressed on LP1 are dynamic and phenomenal to ride.
Without question, Side Two is a great experience but, when it’s combined with dubnobasswithmyheadman‘s C-side, Underworld both seal their own fate as legends and this album as a classic. While they exist on two different plates of vinyl here, they stand together as representing the peak of the album’s power.
The two songs on the C-side of dubnobasswithmyheadman were the first introduction made to Underworld, for a lot of people. They’re the most pop-focused and were instrumental in introducing the group to mainstream audiences and, even now, still wear that shine which hasn’t diminished at all. “Cowgirl” appeared in (what’s now seen as) the proto-internet film Hackers (which starred a pre-Trainspotting Jonny Lee Miller and a pre-superstardom Angelina Jolie), while “Dirty Epic” continues to be just about the closest thing to a pop-crossover song on the album. In both of these cases, the very dense mixes combine with supercharged beats and some mostly stream-of consciousness lyrical ideas to make for some pretty infectious results; the recurring lyric “Get my kicks on channel 6” in “Dirty Epic” and the basically incomprehensible “An eraser of love” in “Cowgirl” both play like “meaning of life”-level mantras in spite of being basically fluffy one-liners [in the spirit of full disclosure, this writer thought it was actually “Ocham’s razor or love” for twenty years – I still think it’s a more attractive image –ed] and still play well thanks to Hyde’s excellent, character-driven delivery of them.
With one more flip, the mood of dubnobasswithmyheadman shifts again to a smooth and slippery denouement on the album’s D-side and, again, it just plays perfectly along this running. As “River Of Bass” opens the side, listeners will feel like the fireworks from the album’s C-side have faded from memory but, rather than just feeling as though the music is filling time ’til it can finish, the song plays more like the relaxation of senses which comes after a hot, sweaty, passionate sexual encounter. That sense is furthered by Hyde murmuring the words “To touch. To taste. She flows like a river of bass vibration” over and over, only occasionally throwing in lines like “Sunshine surrounds me. Showering above their greed,” but doing so almost subliminally by not changing the melody. This form and function continues into the album closer “M.E.” which, again, could have appeared on the soundtracks of any number of nineties tech-focused feature films and just sort of spins euphorically off into oblivion at the close of the side. In that end, the satisfaction that many listeners feel may come close to being genuinely enchanting. Those who went front-to-back with the album may feel drained, as though they’ve just gone on a lengthy expedition, or like they just woke up the morning after a fantastic, very passionate night spent exploring a lover’s body.
Twenty years after the album’s original release, and there’s no question that the music on this reissue of dubnobasswithmyheadman still plays well, and still sounds fresh. It sounds fresh for a lot of reasons. While the modest remastering is one, the more significant one is that the album’s influence has done nothing but spread far and wide since its first release. Sure, the electronic and club music communities still wear the album’s influence pretty plainly but, now, it’s also possible to find that influence present in Top 40 Pop (see the music that artists like Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Ke$ha and Iggy Azalea have released in the last eighteen months) as well as the digital production styling which has been applied to the genre near-universally. True, some of the artists and the sounds they’re making may not cite Underworld as a direct influence on their music, but those who know don’t need to be told; it’s there, it’s powerful and now it will once again be easy to see with this album back on new release racks.
The Twentieth Anniversary vinyl reissue of Dubnobasswithmyheadman by Underworld is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.