Although they've fallen off a bit in recent years (their A Hundred Days Off release didn't hold up at all in terms of long-term listening), Underworld is one of those groups that I've always followed simply because of my love for their early work. Their Dubnobasswithmyheadman album was one of those seminal early 90s techno albums that truly helped cause a shift in my musical taste at the time (along with work by Aphex Twin, the Orb, Orbital, Future Sound of London, and others), and when they hit their stride (Second Toughest In The Infants, tracks like "Moaner," etc ) they're pretty hard to match.
Things change, though, and groups change. For Underworld, it meant the loss of Darren Emerson after their Beaucoup Fish album, and many would rightly argue that he was a key component in some of the best work from the group. They soldiered on, though, and slowed down their release schedule in a big way, cutting the pace to one album nearly every four years. Needless to say, I was very invigorated and even surprised by how well their newest release Oblivion With Bells kicks off. With cover art that's obviously a nod to their first album, the release starts strong with the lovely six-plus minutes of "Crocodile," as vocodered vocals from Karl Hyde swirl through a warm, trancey track that sounds like they haven't missed a beat. "Beautiful Burnout" is even better, ramping things up with super-thick bass synth stabs, neat polyrhythm programming, and murky vocals that launch the track into an extended breakdown and subsequent lush ending.
From there out, the album changes up dramatically and the group never quite recaptures the early potency, although they do come close a couple times. "Ring Road" is another of the spoken-word style Hyde songs, and the odd track (with world music twinges and a gorgeous piano refrain ending) works quite well. On a slightly different side, "Glam Bucket" is just under six minutes of shimmering sonics in an ambient/dance hybrid that's one of the prettier tracks I've heard in awhile.
What's even more befuddling is the last five tracks of the album, which basically kill off any energy that the album established early, including the meaningless ambience of "Cuddle Bunny Vs. The Celtic Villages," the short piano-ballad "Good Morning Cockerel," and the loping, watered-down nine-minute closer "Best Mamgu Ever." As a longtime fan, even I don't expect the group to keep putting out the same sounds album after album, but Oblivion With Bells is such an inconsistent release that I essentially find myself listening to less than half of it. It's hard to be both a pioneer in electronic music and continue that trend for well over a decade (although Thomas Fehlmann is doing a pretty good job). If you're a hardcore fan of Underworld, you'll find some things to love here (as I did), but others will probably want to reach for something more consistent.