Album Review: UNDERWORLD – ‘Second Toughest in the Infants’ Re-issue

Following on from the groundbreaking Underworld Mk 2 album ‘dubnobasswithmyheadman’, 1996’s ‘Second Toughest in the Infants’ just kept running with the template of hypnotic dance/rave/techno/acid house/pop its predecessor had alchemically distilled from the ether.

The bold 16 minute opener ‘Juanita: Kiteless: To Dream of Love’ comes out of the trap like a greyhound, cramming a myriad of ideas into one track, almost like a beginner’s guide.
The following track ‘Banstyle/Sappys Curry’ brings in a drum ’n bass vibe that then merges into a river of bass urban stream of consciousness, which picks up into frantic sequencers at the end. it’s no shorty either.
‘Confusion the Waitress’ reprises the “she said” dialogue of dubno’s ‘Dark & Long’ with the waitress in question. It’s sleazy and reeks of the sodium glare of a motorway services comedown, before another pill kicks in with the teeth grinding euphoria of ‘Rowla’.
Clubbing culture and Ecstasy had set up shop in the nation’s psyche, no longer a phenomenon, simply a way of life, and the exhilarating but scarily confusing landscape the “yoof” weekly found itself in, needed seasoned explorers who knew the terrain. Underworld (aptly named) were tour guides par excéllence, (albeit with a mischievous streak, dropping you down vocal mazes like ‘Pearl’s Girl’ with its C3PO stutters and word association chants – repeating “crazy” ad infinitum as your gurning jaw tried to eat itself).
‘Airtowel’ is a trancey treat, ‘Blueski’ a (too) brief guitar-led mantra and ‘Stagger’ brings things to a chilled cryptic close as the sun is coming up through the badly-drawn curtains.
This sumptuous four CD re-issue comes with a raft of B-sides and remixes. ‘Cherry Pie’ is a sequential muscular workout and a buried gem, ‘Oich Oich’ a squidgy echo-laden groove. ‘Deep Arch’ draws on Giorgio Moroder’s ‘From Here to Eternity’ with climbing arpeggios but drenched in rave-new-world washes of equal parts euphoria and despair. The music of Underworld is often the heroic sound of Icarus in limitless flight but dragged crashing back to earth by the grim reality of the laundromat and unpaid bills, an intoxicating mix of the gutter and the stars.
‘Born Slippy’ is here in its original instrumental version and Deep Pan mix, both baring little relation to the zeitgeist defining colossus it became, for that we will have to wait until disc four. But in the meantime we have a disc of unreleased tracks. ‘Bug’ is a laid-back groove that showcases one of Underworld’s unique strengths that I can’t believe it’s taken me until now to shout about – namely Karl Hyde’s vocals. A stroke of genius move that set them apart from their contemporaries and added a human touch to the synthetic voice-free anthems of the times. Singing isn’t the word exactly (though when he does it’s sublime and no sleight is intended on his rich tuneful tone), more a human sampler and scattershot techno beat-poet.
‘D’Arbly St’ is a downbeat after-hours back-to-mine delight, ‘Bing Here’ a mesmeric drum ’n bass rhythm fest. There’s much to lose yourself in, in these pieces of music, and ‘Pearls Vers 2’, I’m having flashbacks of hearing it before, despite its unreleased status (good flashbacks, I hasten to add, but blurry, aren’t they always the best ones?) ‘Bloody 1’ is a almost a mini-album in itself.
Disc four is consecrated to Born Slippy NUXX in its most iconic and remembered form, plus several varied free-form versions recorded at various live shows. Possibly overkill until you realise that no-one will ever tire of that trio of euphoric synth chords and the accompanying “Drive boy, dog boy…” chemically-driven scat. Ever.
Underworld are simply mega. Mega. White thing, mega mega.


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