A dazzling project, they still know how to move listeners in a way no other electronic act can. ...

“A foolhardy promise made in public”. That was how Rick Smith described the official announcement of 'DRIFT Series 1' back in November 2018. In hindsight, it is easy to see where he was coming from: the plan was to put out new music every Thursday for the next twelve months, recording and mixing on the fly. “There was nowhere to go but everywhere”, as Jack Kerouac wrote. And off they went. A year later, Underworld has kept their promise.

Released on Smith Hyde Productions via Caroline International, DRIFT Series 1 (Boxset Edition) contains seven CDs and a Blue-Ray with over five hours of music and videos together with an 80-page book, which documents the ups and downs of their creative process in detail. Turns out they were in for a rough ride. Smith’s diary entry dated January the 23rd illustrates the impact of hectic schedule: “In studio getting stressed, desperate, up late, looking at dozens of little bits… Appleshine in afternoon/night delivered at 6.45am.”

While DRIFT’s production values remain solid, a few tracks would have needed more time to be fleshed out. This is most noticeable on the over-distorted vocals and sporadic strings of ‘Two Arrows’ that are barely held together by the bass, no matter how insistent. Similarly, ‘Threat of Rain’ soon hits a plateau and wanders off.

Even then, you can trust Underworld to play to their strengths. The exuberant, visceral signature sound guaranteed to knock the fans off their feet, is on DRIFT too - the throbbing kick delays of the opener ‘Another Silent Way’, the shimmering arpeggios of ‘Appleshine - Film Edit’ and the rolling bassline of ‘Border Country’ (featuring Ø [Phase]).

Above all, it’s the dramatic finality evoked by Karl Hyde’s lyrics on ‘Schiphol Test’: “Got to get away / Push, push, push, push / Moving on”. Twenty five years on, they still know how to move you in a way no other electronic act can.

Once DRIFT steps off the beaten track it takes several unexpected turns, most notably in close collaboration with The Necks drummer Tony Buck on ‘Custard Speedtalk’ and the saxophonist Lewis Evans from Black Country, Old Road on ‘Poet Cat’. By the time we get to the dazzling choral work ‘A Moth at the Door’ and the menacing strings, a grimy double bass and bleak lyrics (“I wish I was a bird crossing oceans / Crossing cities / Crossing it all out.”) of ‘Hundred Weight Hammer’, we are left wondering how much more lust for life, solemnity and existential dread is still sitting on their hard drives.

Getting some of it out is DRIFT’s greatest achievement and a testament to the possibilities opened up by the digital landscape: direct-to-fan engagement, exclusive downloads and ticket pre-sales, the works. By taking all these ideas and running with them, Underworld has rushed in where most artists fear to tread. “Did any of us ever seriously think there wouldn’t be a DRIFT Series 2…?” Hyde wrote on the homepage. We are ready to go. Just say the word.

9/10

Words: Eero Holi

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