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20,000 Leagues Under the Scene

By: Jayanthi K. DanielUnderworld vs. Underwater

In 1992, a young British young techno/trance DJ (Darren Emerson) was recruited by an 80’s new wave team (Karl Hyde and Rick Smith), after the duo released two relatively unsuccessful records. Suddenly there was synergy: the trio released a number of critically and commercially successful albums. But in 2000, Emerson left to pursue a solo career. Underworld fans worldwide lamented his loss, and many thought that the group would never be the same again.

It seems, however, that Emerson hasn’t strayed far from success, or from partnering with like-minded musical cohorts. His recent project, Underwater: Episode I (Thrive Records), a two-disc house mix aimed for plush couches and pretty people, was produced with U.K. club upstart Tim Deluxe. Meanwhile, Underworld recently released their seventh album, A Hundred Days Off (V2), their first album since Emerson’s departure. Compared to their 1993 debut, Dubnobasswithmyheadman, A Hundred Days Off is a little less dancefloor oriented, with more ballads and lullaby-like songs, yet their trance-infused brand of lyric-driven techno is still as satisfying as that of their first album.

Emerson’s main reason for leaving Underworld was to actively pursue his DJ career, and while some critics mocked him for leaving a successful and highly influential group in order to release one mainstream dance compilation after another, it seems his talents are well suited to the task. To demonstrate this point, at an intimate New York City club on a recent Tuesday night, Emerson and Deluxe spun to a venue about half-full of devotees who danced right in front of the turntables. The duo was just as energetic as the crowd, simultaneously jumping up and down and hugging each other while they mixed house and techno tracks together seamlessly. The audience-artist connection was palpable, and one could see that Emerson wasn’t necessarily bemoaning the fact that he was the star of the show. Most tracks they played were culled from Underwater, including a now-ubiquitous remix of Layo &Bushwacka!’s “Love Story,” and a terribly cheesy mix of “That Latin Track” by DJ Vitamin D and Miss Audrey. Emerson even enlisted his former partners’ help as he spun “Two MonthsOff,” the first single off of A Hundred Days Off. There was not a tinge of regret on Emerson’s face as he danced his way through his own mix of the track. Instead of bitterly disavowing the past, Emerson paid homage to the group that kick-started his career.

Coincidentally, Underworld took over New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom two weeks later, playing a nonstop two-and-a-half hour set. Underworld’s penchant for repetitious, simple,yet energizing chord choruses roused the audience into united pulsation. During their performance of “Two Months Off,” early on in the show, Hyde stood behind a microphone and playedguitar while Smith stuck to the machines. It was a subdued performance of an otherwise exciting track, although some hardhouse beats (and even some breakbeats) were thrown into themix. But the height of the show came during a rare performance of the classic Underworld track “Dirty Epic,” off Dubnobass: While Smith stood behind a table lit by a row of single-bulb lamps, looking a bit like a high-school science teacher, Hyde took to the stage, wailing “Christ on crutches / Christ on crutches!” The Hammerstein fans pressed right against the stage, and Hyde bowed and thanked the crowd profusely. He seemed to be happy that despite the departure of the DJ, the fans decided to stick around for a little more dancing to the music of Underworld.