Live Report: Underworld – Aviva Studios, Manchester

A titanic night with the rave pioneers...

The acts that defined the UK’s rave revolution were cultural outsiders. Despite bringing a hedonistic euphoria that resonated with many young Britons at the time, electronic music remained a marginal affair in the late 80s. But for Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, the creative forces behind Underworld, the era brought a divine wind of change, resulting in a pivot away from synth-pop and towards the club sound that would bring them notoriety. Now, some three and a half decades later, the duo have sold out a string of Europe-wide shows, demonstrating their cultural staying power and reverence on the rave scene. It’s for this that thousands have gathered at Manchester’s Aviva Studios – the second date added at the venue due to high demand.

The first impression of the new £240 million cultural hub is its scale. Entering from the back of the room, a cavernous, warehouse-like space opens up, packed to the brim with a 5,000-strong crowd. The demographics quickly become clear while wading through the punters towards the stage, with at least three-quarters of the attendees Hacienda-era party-goers seeking to reconnect with their youth and relive a frenetic evening of nostalgic escapism.

Pitching up about 15 metres from the action on stage, the state-of-the-art venue really comes into its own. An energetic Hyde commands attention with erratic dance moves against a swirling and pulsating backdrop of graphics, spotlights, lasers, and a sort of mesh embedded with hundreds of LEDs. It’s an impressive and stimulating set-up that truly enhances the sense of immersion in the space. 

The evening’s programming is split into two sets with a half-hour intermission. The first of these starts with some of the duo’s softer offerings. ‘Nylon Strung’, with its poetic and wistful lyrics, and the catchy ‘Dirty Epic’ allow Hyde to warm up his vocal chords and ease the crowd into the evening. It then feels like there’s a sudden gear shift, with the chugging 135 BPM ‘Kittens’ almost rudely muscling in on the action. The energy and pace continue to build until the frantic and nerve-jangling ‘Tin There’ alongside a flourish of disorientating strobes. The intermission at this point feels like a welcome moment of respite.

After granting the audience half an hour to collect themselves, the duo re-emerges and demands movement again with the endlessly catchy and bouncy ‘Jumbo’. Smith and Hyde now have the crowd where they want them. Big-hitting ‘Pearl’s Girl’ flows straight into ‘Dark and Long (Dark Train)’, the latter of which has the audience ritualistically throwing their hands in the air in unison with the frontman up on stage. It’s a wave of euphoria that carries into ‘Two Months Off’, where the lyrics “You bring light in” are accompanied by a shimmering golden hue that illuminates the blissed-out crowd – a surefire highlight. 

This moment spells the start of the performance’s home stretch. The more low-key and trance-like ‘Rez/Cowgirl’ is followed by ‘The Colour Red’, at which point a menacing red glow fills the room and a lattice of lasers cuts through the air above the audience’s heads. The thumping 2024 single ‘Fen Violet’ gives Hyde a chance to demonstrate his timeless timbre before the set’s penultimate banger, ‘King of Snake’.

It’s only apt that the track that launched them into mainstream consciousness, ‘Born Slippy’, tops off the night. The hit is met in kind by a dazzling light display and a rapturous crowd that relishes the opportunity to shout “LAGER, LAGER, LAGER,” along with a zealous Hyde up on stage. It’s a palpable moment of collective joy that sums up the duo’s performance.

Words: Dan McCarthy

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