When the British techno band Underworld played the Hollywood Bowl last year for the belated 20th anniversary of its 1994 breakthrough LP "dubnobasswithmyheadman," it proved that live dance music could be as fun to watch as a rock show. Singer Karl Hyde prowled around the stage, spinning abstract tales of substance abuse, isolated modernity and hopes for redemption in his muttery sing-speak vocal style. Behind him, Rick Smith and touring member Darren Price worked a mixing board and racks of analog synths and computers.
That was about it. But the set landed with all the sensory overload of a good rave, with the charisma and stage presence of a great band.
On "Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future," the group proves that its late-career live ferocity is still matched by its sonic inventiveness and resonant songwriting. "Barbara," the duo's first album of original material together in five years, often stacks up with their best work and suggests that the ideas they pioneered in the '90s aren't just back en vogue — they've held up amid decades of fast-moving techno.
"I Exhale" opens with a genuine arena-rock gesture: a reverbed acoustic drum set and clean electric guitar line. But within seconds, they're swamped in deep synth bass and squalls of hot-wired noises. Hyde's vague, fragmented lyrics sit right between The Fall's Mark E. Smith (his chatty, antagonistic predecessor) and LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy (his hopeful, funnier heir). He splits the difference between hooky rave earnestness and punky disaffection.
"Low Burn" is a clouds-parting deep house number that feels alternately chilled out and ecstatic. It is moody, rich and propulsive in a way that few club-music acts can match today. "If Rah" knocks around with a serrated noise-funk bass line, while "Ova Nova" takes a lighter French Touch mood that fires the same synapses as pre-Pharrell Daft Punk.
At only seven songs, it's a bit of a shame that two consecutive tracks, "Santiago Cuatro" and "Motorhome," lack much of backbone, save some well-sculpted ambience and a new-to-Underworld Latin guitar feel. But closer "Nylon Strung" is a soulful, bleary-eyed disco triumph, a perfectly produced and ebullient sendoff to "Barbara." It'll sound great at the end of its next set at Coachella, and hopefully for many more late nights to come.