The internationally revered techno superstars Underworld pay tribute to their art-school roots on their new compilation album, ‘Athens’. The first in a series, this rich musical mix is packed with rare grooves and cult gems from the outer limits of dance music, jazz-rock, fusion and progressive pop. This album shows the open-minded flipside of Underworld, the more eclectic and experimental foundations that lie beneath their shimmering electro soundscapes. The album is credited to Underworld vs The Misterons, a collective alter ego which includes the group’s core members Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, their regular studio and live collaborator Darren Price, plus creative mastermind Steven Hall. Ranging far and wide across musical genres and eras, this music will appeal equally to vinyl-loving connoisseurs and arty party hedonists. The grooves are still funky, but the vibes are warm and soulful, with more live instruments than sequencers or drum machines.
"The overall mood is jazz and improvisation," Underworld explain. "There is very little playing in a lot of people’s records in the dance and DJ world these days, but one thing Underworld have always liked is musicianship. It doesn’t stop us loving machine music and house music and everything that goes with it, but the idea with this album was to highlight records we liked that we thought had great live playing on them."
United more by spirit than sound, the tracks on ‘Athens’ offer a musical journey from inner space to the dancefloor, and back again. From the immersive, cosmic tone poems of Alice Coltrane’s ‘Journey In Satchidananda’ to the seductive, snaking groove of ‘Space Odyssey’ by techno titan Carl Craig’s orchestral jazz offshoot Detroit Experiment. From the mystical psychedelic blues of Mahavishnu Orchestra’s ‘You Know, You Know’ to the spicy Afro-funk of Laurent Garnier’s ‘Gnaumankoudji’. And from the avant-garde mellowness of Squarepusher’s ‘Theme From Sprite’ to the bustling disco-funk crosstown traffic of ‘New York City’ by Miroslav Vitous. The musical agenda is limitless, the rhythms infectious, the mood hypnotic.
Underworld themselves appear twice on the album, in slightly different guises. The first is their jazz-textured instrumental ‘Oh’, originally heard on the soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s 1997 film A Life Less Ordinary. "We are often painted as a techno act," the band explain, "but we like to think we’ve been much broader than that musically. You do become stereotyped, so for us it is nice to get pieces like this out and show that we can recontextualise our sound. We’ve never tried to make current, trendy techno records. We’ve always tried to make something more adventurous and timeless than that."
Karl also delivers one of his signature stream-of-consciousness raps on the album’s climactic cut, ‘Beebop Hurry’, a collaboration with the legendary polymath producer Brian Eno conceived during sessions for Eno’s Luminous Festival of experimental music, which was held at the Sydney Opera House in May and June 2009. A vivid blast of liquid beats and jazzy electronica, this fantastic new work has never been released before.
"This was part of an exploration period of Karl and Brian trying some idea together," the band explain, "before they went off to Sydney, Underworld and Brian got together to do some pieces in the studio. This was a track from those sessions that we thought fitted the concept we had anyway. We’ve got a very broad definition of jazz."
A younger version of Eno can also be heard elsewhere on the album, in the Roxy Music classic ‘2HB’, an achingly romantic torch song from the band’s eponymous 1972 debut album. The vibrant British art-rock scene of the early 1970s, often overlooked by pop historians, was one of the key inspirations behind the musical selection and creative input on ‘Athens’. Indeed, Soft Machine’s intoxicating jazz-rock instrumental ‘Penny Hitch’ from 1973 was the original catalyst for the entire project and the cover artwork is a painting by Karl Hyde himself.
"The Soft Machine track was the starting point of the concept of the whole compilation," say Underworld. "A few years ago we wanted to try and mix a load of Soft Machine material, so we tried to get record companies interested, but nothing could ever be arranged. They are a band that people should listen to now because so much of what we now think of as techno appears in a lot of Soft Machine stuff. Their use of early synths was incredible."
‘Athens’ is an irresistible sonic collage of pop and art, old and new, cult heroes and left-field classics. Welcome to the warm, soulful, experimental roots of the world’s greatest techno conceptualists. Take a ride on Underworld’s flipside.