KeleEdit this event
I feel wholly undecided about tonight’s event. It’s hard to argue with being given free gig tickets and song downloads and yet the whole night seems very hollow. Due to the pot luck process of getting tickets for these events, it would appear many folks have just tried for every date to see what they end up with instead of aiming for their favourite acts, meaning that there’s a feeling of being in a slickly run TV studio at times complete with a crowd that is totally useless for much of Kele’s set.
Admittedly, that’s also because his new stuff isn’t very good. There are glimpses of decent material in there, like the bombastic pounding rhythms of opener ‘Walk Tall’ or the hands-in-the-air Calvin Harris-esque chorus of single ‘Tenderoni’, but much is just generic Nineties dance (with some bizarre Timbaland face gurning for the kids). A medley of Bloc Party songs reinforce that his voice has always been one of the strongest aspects of whatever music he’s making, driving home the emotional refrains at the heart of much of this new album with resounding passion, but their messages are so trite that it’s hard to care.
Which is something I never thought I’d say about Underworld truth be told, seeing as they’ve been at the top of their game for almost 20 years solid now. But tonight they unveil a whole batch of new stuff and for the first time in their existence, the band look totally out of step with all the music that’s going on around them.
It’s often tricky to fully get into gigs when bands are previewing new music without the benefit of any foretaste, with the likely outcome being that you realise in six months' time what a great setlist you actually witnessed once the album has bedded in, but there are notable exceptions to that rule, with these guys usually very much being one of them.
Opener ‘Downpipe’ has been around a while now and is wholly decent but it’s the newest material that concerns the most; current single ‘Scribble’ sounds better in the flesh than on record, but the underlying awkwardness of its more direct style and message are confirmed when the other Barking tracks get some airtime. The repeated message of "But it’s all okayyyyy you give me everything I need" and the euphoric 170 bpm behind it would work well as an isolated incident, as say ‘Two Months Off’ did on A Hundred Days Off, but early signs are that it won’t be. ‘Always Loved a Film’ and ‘Between Stars’ too suffer from these less abstract chorus lines such as "Hea-v-en; can you feel it?" and Rick Smith’s dual vocal backing. In fact they sound disappointingly like the kind of track you’d find on the depths of any old Ibiza dance compilation back in 1996. ‘Bird1’ was the highlight of the new works, echoing some of the wonder of ‘Beautiful Burnout’, with ‘Diamond Jigsaw’ also seemingly a slow burner that the jury is out on. But overall, it’s a worrying appetizer for the imminent LP.
Of course being an Underworld gig they have the back catalogue to still give you a stunning show. Karl is as enigmatic and happy as ever during ‘Two Months Off’ (which gets better with every live airing), ‘Nu train’ sounds mesmerising (and arrives just in time after five of the six opening songs all roughly stick to the rather old formula of loud bit > downtime > build up > big freak out ending) and ‘King of Snake’ is huge – strobing and twisting its way out of a single fucked up drum beat and uncurling into a throbbing, evil form. But – as ever, truth be told – it’s the merging of ‘Rez / Cowgirl’ that astounds. The 17-year-old song still sounds so fresh, with Karl drifting into his own thoughts during the second half’s vocal build up and then unleashing its triumphant call-to-arms freak out.
In all fairness, they also suffer from ‘Born Slippy’ syndrome tonight. two thirds of the assembly seem to have come out purely for it’s opening notes and only leave the bar or enter into the fray once they sound out. So it’s to the band’s credit that they no longer shy away from its iconic status and instead embrace it like a loved child, complete with a five minute extended outro.
But it’s a very mixed bag. The two ends of their musical scale sound so disparate and unconnected that it’s hard right now to imagine a further 20 spins of the upcoming record making it any more endearing. Over the past ten years, many have argued that the band had lost ‘it’, yet the last two records and side projects to these ears have continued to defy those critics. However I fear after hearing most of these new looming collaborations, that this will be a stance I can no longer take.