Considering that Underworld has all but abandoned the explosive style of songs like “Born Slippy” and “Pearl’s Girl” that grasped dance floors during the ’90s, it’s a bit ironic that the veteran act still titles its eighth studio album Barking. Since Darren Emerson left, in 2000, after helping create a trifecta of near-perfect albums — 1993’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman, 1996’s Second Toughest in the Infants and 1999’s Beaucoup Fish — the remaining duo of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith has frankly seemed a bit lost. They have opted for less spark and more subtlety, which has ultimately translated into two meandering and, dare we say, dull records in the post-Emerson era.
Thankfully, following 2002’s lackluster A Hundred Days Off and 2007’s slightly improved but still underwhelming Oblivion with Bells, Hyde and Smith have returned to some sort of form with Barking — though they needed plenty of outside help to do so. To be fair, though, Underworld’s co-conspirators aren’t necessarily young whippersnappers — they’ve been together in various incarnations of the band since the early ’80s — so what harm could a little fresh perspective do? Fortunately, little to none. On Barking, guests like drum ‘n’ bass producer High Contrast and trance mainstay Paul Van Dyk provide their input and tweak the Underworld template in the process.
Both parties provide instant energy, particularly PVD, whose collaboration, “Diamond Jigsaw,” is a rather joyous house track that’s coated with light guitars and captures the climax of a rave while reconciling Underworld and Van Dyk’s club roots. Its sunny disposition nicely contrasts the darker techno pulses of “Always Loved a Film,” which reminds me of Underworld’s early ’90s choons and features the talents of Mark Knight & D. Ramirez, producers who teamed up with the band on a track called “Downpipe” last year.
If there’s anything distinctive about Barking, it’s that Hyde has replaced his patented stream-of-consciousness prose with actual, structured singing, which fits surprisingly well with most of the tracks save for closer, “Lousiana.” A tender ballad in which Hyde does his best Antony Hegarty impression (and the only Barking cut that features just Hyde and Smith), the track’s soft piano and languid pace make for an apt finale — were it on any other record except Underworld’s. Still, Barking’s final act doesn’t totally sully the rest of the record, which proves that these elder statesmen of electronica still have some bite in them after all.