Album Review: Underworld – Drift Series 1

30 October 2019 | 12:02 pm | Mac McNaughton

"[S]ix discs that don’t feel overwhelming or indulgent."

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Mere weeks ahead of the release of what had become known as Drift Songs – the culmination of a year-long series of weekly new musical offerings – Underworld announced the final album would now be called Drift Series 1. Yup. They’re gonna do it again for another year!

You've got to be cautious of getting too excited about any band attempting a ludicrously ambitious release schedule, lest the artist lose their grip on the quality controls. But Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have set Drift up for a fascinatingly successful journey. They certainly made the right moves to get fans on side early, sending free music like a gift every week for a year to subscribers and periodically compiling ‘episodes’ (five in all), making us feel part of the trip. If you like Kittens, Dinosaur Adventure 3D and Dexter’s Chalk... then Give Me The Room belongs to you," an email from episode five read. 

That dog's knowing smile, looking off to his next distraction, is the perfect cover image. With over six-and-a-half hours of music to romp through (40 tracks from the opulent boxset reviewed here, with ten on offer via the single disc Sampler edition), there’s plenty of Underworld’s moods to savour, and, if so inclined, you could compile your own playlists from this collection. Want nothing but the bangers? You’ll definitely want Universe Of Can When Back, Listen To Their No and Valentine's card to Kraftwerk, This Must Be Drum Street. Prefer the more laidback comedowns? Load up on the gorgeous, lengthy Appleshine and Toluca Stars

Occasionally, you’ll get a smack of familiarity, a reminder of Underworlds of old, such as when Dune’s wooziness bumps into walls like 2002’s Sola Sistim did, or when the cartoonish S T A R (which name-checks old mate Danny Boyle) threatens to go a bit mental like their collaboration with Iggy Pop, last year’s Bells & Circles. Successful navigation of Hyde and Smith’s brand of electronica makes for a hugely satisfying experience that, remarkably, does not exhaust the listener or overstay its welcome. 

There are generous surprises in both Altitude Dub Continuum and Appleshine Continuum. Both instrumentals top the half-hour mark, the former an atmospheric love letter to Brian Eno’s jazzier leanings, the latter a massive road trip escorting an unconscious Hunter S Thompson home from his first techno gig. See also the terrifying A Very Silent Way (starring Aussie avant-jazz collective The Necks), with its unsettling clatters and sinister bass string torture, which nobody could have foreseen of the band who once shouted, “Lager, lager, lager, lager." These thrilling diversions all show sumptuous and expansive new sides of Underworld that are hopefully explored further in series two.

Astonishingly, Underworld have pulled off the incredible: six discs that don’t feel overwhelming or indulgent. Drift consistently accelerates then cruises in a different direction, before taking off again in a new one. Enjoy the ride.