- Too often "return to form" means that a flailing act has finally made another good album, but I like what Underworld did with Oblivion with Bells. That uncharacteristically sombre, inward-looking album was markedly different in tone from both the band's classic "MkII" work and A Hundred Days Off, their superb opening bow as a duo after Darren Emerson left; it was an experiment that worked. Barking, then, is a return to form not because it's the best album Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have put out in a while (and it is), but because this record sees the duo returning to the more beat-intensive, complicatedly beatific realm of everything from "Pearl's Girl" to "Two Months Off."
In some ways Barking also marks a departure for the band, and not just because the album could fit on a single LP, or because eight of these nine tracks see Hyde and Smith employing other acts for additional production. Like Hot Chip's underrated One Life Stand, Barking marries a renewed emphasis on the dance floor with unabashedly open-hearted lyrics; with their combination of ebullient refrains and bright, bursting music "Always Loved a Film," "Scribble," "Between Stars," and "Diamond Jigsaw" could all vie for the most straightforwardly joyous Underworld song we've heard in a long time. As always, Underworld make perfect music for travelling—if you're somewhere you can't dance, you should at least be in a car or train or bus, anything moving forward and fast.
But Barking doesn't work at just one speed; the slightly more subdued "Grace" and "Moon in Water" (which sounds like a version of Eno's "Bone Bomb" that's simultaneously calmer and more kicking) provide some needed breathers, and the slowly building, impressionistic "Bird 1" ("a moped started up / sounding like a chainsaw / of tiny firecrackers" is my favourite bit of scene-setting in ages) and movingly wracked, trembling ballad "Louisiana" ease the listener into and out of the album gently. The only real misstep is the essentially instrumental "Hamburg Hotel," which isn't bad, just unnecessary. On one of Underworld's marathon albums it might have been a welcome detour, but with the rest of Barking packed so explosively tight it's just in the way.
While it's impossible to tell how much polish the various outside producers contribute, or whether they got much direction from Hyde and Smith (how interesting would the demos from this album be, for once?), the songs here are a harmonious marriage of the classic, propulsive Underworld sound and the kind of techniques and textures that postdate most of their career. It's interesting that an album with so much outside input highlights the band's populist, maximalist side. If these other artists were trying to bring out what they loved about Underworld in their contributions, it's telling that it's Hyde and Smith's knack for euphoria that's on full display here.
01. Bird 1 feat. Dubfire
02. Always Loved A Film feat. Mark Knight & D. Ramirez
03. Scribble feat. High Contrast
04. Hamburg Hotel feat. Appleblim & Al Tourettes
05. Grace feat. Dubfire
06. Between Stars feat. Mark K & D. Ramirez
07. Diamond Jigsaw feat. Paul van Dyk
08. Moon In Water feat. High Contrast