17. Underworld – ‘Second Toughest in the Infants’

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Album Review, Ambient, Ambient Techno, Breakbeat, Techno | Tags: | No Comments »

Underworld - 'Second Toughest in the Infants'

Underworld * Second Toughest in the Infants * 1996 * Junior Boys’ Own

After the underground smash of their first album, Underworld hit the studio hard, churning out gobs of innovative music. First they followed up with a host of E.P.’s that wildly remixed earlier singles into some of the most forward-looking techno on the globe. Dark & Long and Dirty Epic/Cowgirl revealed a band riding a relentless high, epic tracks like ‘Thing in a Book’ and ‘Dark Train’ trailblazing a new musical vernacular far out into the imagination.

A more unsettled blueprint emerged with their interim single, Born Slippy. The title track deconstructed a click-clack breakbeat to devastating effect, its searing synth lines climbing the psychic stratosphere with counterpuntal abandon. But it was the less muscular b-side ‘Born Slippy.Nuxx’ that would bring them their greatest fame. Used as the final uplifting soundtrack to the movie hit Trainspotting, ‘Nuxx’ was actually a piss-take of sorts, its rough rhythms a warehouse swelter of chains and metal riffs, contrasting with its catchy, pretty opening chords.

Second Toughest in the Infants capped off this feverish activity with a coolly controlled, slow-burn album of broad artistic ambitions. One might call it a matured sound. But it can more accurately be described as Underworld comfortably settling into their role as techno supergroup and genre grownups.

The offbeat album title derived from studio maestro Rick Smith’s nephew, who was six years old at the time, commenting on his progress in school. The “second toughest” sentiment nicely paralleled Underworld’s own path. Cruising in, their second longplayer engages right off with the flanged breakbeats of ‘Juanita : Kiteless : To Dream of Love,’ weaving and winding into a croaking groove, spinning out to mesmerizing piano and rapidly firing waterfall high-hats. ‘Banstyle / Sappy’s Curry’ ricochets to soft drum ‘n’ bass rhythms in a jacuzzi of warm, hushed melodies, frontman Karl Hyde singing “Here come the Marines. As if that hurts.”

The two bruisers on offer chart two routes into dance floor energy. Like ‘Born Slippy,’ ‘Rowla’ and ‘Pearl’s Girl’ got their names from a book of greyhound racing dogs. Like their namesakes, each one picks up its pace slowly, muscles, bones and sinews of percussion building to an unstoppable rhythm. ‘Rowla’ growls with rough synth riffs, scratching with blades of static. Hyde gets busy on the hulking ‘Pearl’s Girl,’ slinging his abstract Englishman raps over pulverizing beats and surging walls of sound.

Balancing out the sound and fury, ‘Confusion the Waitress,’ ‘Air Towel’ and ‘Stagger’ explore mellow techno shot through smokey diners, coffee cups and flying saucers. Weird and sleek at once, they round out Underworld’s convincing bid for blues of the future. In case anyone missed the tab, ‘Blueski’ hits it home with a sweet tangle of steel guitar strings ringing from Hyde’s fingers.

Second Toughest in the Infants sealed Underworld’s reputation as the artist’s artist as well as reliable fan-pleaser. It encapsulated their functional and experimental approach to music: If it moves, it grooves; if it kinks, it thinks. It also offered a cockpit view inside their wanderer ethos, their fragmented poetry, their hope and loathing.

The following Pearl’s Girl E.P. would bookend this heroic phase of Underworld’s career. Dreamy tracks like ‘Oich Oich’ and ‘Mosaic’ put them on the quiet edge while ‘Cherry Pie’ was an aching beauty of cosmic proportions, one of techno’s all-time best.

Second Toughest in the Infants, and its brethren, showcased electronica’s greatest band at the height of its powers.┬áIt was a heady time. Looking back now, it’s still timeless, still an infinite infant.

1. Juanita : Kiteless : To Dream of Love
2. Banstyle / Sappy’s Curry
3. Confusion the Waitress
4. Rowla
5. Pearl’s Girl
6. Air Towel
7. Blueski
8. Stagger

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