I’ll always think of Underworld fondly as the group that made it okay for me to not hate electronic music. I grew up in Orlando, a hub of rave culture. The ecstasy, the glow sticks, the pacifiers — this rock fan was having none of it. Even when I got out of Central Florida to go to college, I initially resisted bands with beats I would later come to admire, like Basement Jaxx. Finally, it was Underworld’s 1999 album, Beaucoup Fish, that made me realize there could be just as much substance and artistry in music (sometimes too hastily) tagged “electronica” as there was in the music of other bands that released great albums that year, like Pavement.
Calling Underworld “an electronic act even rock fans can love” isn’t any kind of slight. There might not be a cut on Oblivion with Bells as banging as “Kittens” or as immediately club-ready as Underworld’s breakthrough single, “Born Slippy.” But what is here, a mixture of jagged dance-punk numbers with pretty sound sketches (of the type Underworld has employed for recent soundtrack work), all succeeds.
Underworld’s ace card continues to be Karl Hyde’s vocal style. He rants in a stream-of-consciousness mode somewhere between speaking and singing. Hyde plays with his lines the way a guitarist does with riffs: On “Holding the Moth,” for example, he’ll state a phrase, repeat it, remake it, remodel it, and use it as a springboard for other tangents. This can be nonsensical, but like the best spoken-word poetry, the rhythm of the language alone is intriguing (“Is it playtime?/ Is it playtime?/ Roll the ball/ The blue slush cup”).
Oblivion with Bells starts sparklingly with “Crocodile,” a futuristic tune you’d expect to hear at an Epcot exhibit. That leads directly into the dark night of “Beautiful Burnout.” Later, on “Ring Road,” Hyde’s observing passersby in a British city, over what’s possibly the most straight hip-hop beat Underworld has ever laid down, one that sounds not unlike what the Neptunes provided for Clipse’s “Grindin’.” We end up at “Best Mamgu Ever,” a clever closer. It starts pretty but is eventually subsumed by a cool, buzzing beat. Hyde comes in scatting vocals. The song spools out in lengthy patterns, Hyde and Rick Smith content to explore their own world, their own sound, no matter what label people might try to pigeonhole it in.