Pop & Hiss
Review

Strobes, fog and glow sticks: Underworld mesmerizes at trippy Hollywood Bowl show

With strobe lights, fog and glow sticks, Underworld has the Hollywood Bowl tripping

Is there such a thing as a glow stick fairy? 

At the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday night, while British electronic dance band Underworld was pumping through “Cowgirl,” its hypnotic rhythm track, hundreds of straw-sized sticks flew up from various pockets in the crowd like neon candy from parade floats, soaring through the air via random Tinkerbells or — less poetically — a bunch of ravers on a mission to spread positive vibes. 

As the magnetic vocalist Karl Hyde, lithe and with charismatic energy, danced in tight-torsoed maneuvers like a cornered king cobra, the glow sticks landed in the hands of the thousands. Within moments, the Hollywood Bowl was shimmering with primary colors and further propelled into blissful dance. 

On a revelatory night of giddy release, Underworld turned the Bowl into a massive party, focusing mostly on tracks from its 1994 rave-rock breakthrough, “Dubnobasswithmyheadman.” 

One of the most influential electronic dance groups, Underworld is hardly a household name. The group is best known for “Born Slippy,” the raucous track that mixed Chicago house and British rock and was featured in Danny Boyle’s 1996 film “Trainspotting.” On that song (in fact, the track is originally a B-side remix called “Born Slippy.NUXX”) and others, the group harnessed the wild energy of drug-fueled rave culture to craft lose-yourself-in-rhythm works that in a live setting extended for seven to eight minutes. 

The work that Hyde, producer Rick Smith and keyboardist-mixer Darren Price delivered on Sunday night, the first in KCRW’s annual World Festival series of Bowl performances, was an often overwhelming mix of repetitive sound, frantic strobe and dense fog that should have been prefaced with a seizure warning. 

The group played no ballads and didn’t require Hollywood Bowl Orchestra strings or, for that matter, any acoustic instruments. Rather, while Hyde bobbed amid strobe and fog and lyrically explored bliss, addiction and various entanglements in songs including “Spoonman,” “Scribble” and “Mmm … Skyscraper I Love You,” Smith worked nobs and buttons behind a high-tech mixing board that suggested he was maneuvering the Starship Enterprise. Light beams swirled inside the Bowl’s band shell, at various times deep red, velvety purple and white-hot white. 

Inside a Bowl spinning in constant motion, the sensory overload was magnified by a relentlessness, an “Autobahn”-like drive that favored cruise-control loops that ascended and descended, rolled and swirled, without much regard for standard pop variation. Tracks like the epic instrumental “Rez” contained dense textures as thick as a jungle, but had no need for bridges and easy hooks.

Electronic dance music has been bumping for decades now, and it’s easy to take for granted the tones that are within its DNA. But the various squelches, staticky washes, bass-heavy breakdowns and complicated beats didn’t arrive in a vacuum. That template was laid out, in part, by Underworld and its peers during rave culture’s first-wave peak in England in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. 

Powered by faster computer processors and newly sophisticated software, producers not only explored sound settings, but started programming their own weird tones. Refined through trial and error via DJs working twin turntables, these fresh tones emitted shock energy and seemed to evolve by the month.

A lot of the lesser acts are long forgotten, but Underworld has continued to evolve and remained busy.

Sunday was devoted to a moment in the mid-1990s when Underworld and others started working with singers, organizing elaborate stage shows and tweaking the sounds at huge outdoor raves that helped define British dance music. The group hasn’t lost any of that energy, and delivered as it was in its natural habitat — under the stars, lost in its own universe — it still felt vital.

In fact, like LCD Soundsystem's miraculous performance in 2010, Underworld reinforced the truth that the Bowl can be a powerful driver of bass tones and can propel dance parties way up to the top to the hill. 

Prior to Underworld, the new-breed British soul band Jungle offered a solid, if overly smooth, set of disco-accented tracks. A KCRW-FM (89.9) favorite, the seven players drew inspiration from a rich history of British funk and soul, especially the acid jazz and trip-hop scenes of the 1990s. Though hardly revolutionary, the group nonetheless was easy enough on the ears as it performed tracks from its 2014 self-titled debut album. 

But the group lacked a certain something, as if it, too, was awaiting the showering of glow sticks.

Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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