It cannot be easy to be an electronic artist entering one’s elder statesman phase. In a genre founded as much on constant technological improvement as actual music, nostalgia plays a diminished role relative to other kinds of pop. This is especially prevalent among the late-‘80s and early-‘90s artists that shepherded the mainstream explosion of rave in the UK. This early vanguard of EDM titans often came from rockist backgrounds and parlayed what they knew of pop through that prism into dance music. As such, recent returns of artists like the Prodigy and Primal Scream underscore how poorly this shotgun marriage of approaches has dated.

Underworld is perhaps the most self-consciously rock-like of these groups. But oddly, it may have aged best of all, thanks to how the Mk2 lineup shrewdly reworked established pop tropes, using Karl Hyde’s vocals as a kind of living sample in his disconnected party-up non-sequiturs. Recent re-releases of its landmark LPs dubnobasswithmyheadman and Second Toughest in the Infants have readily proved the enduring power of its proggy dance epics, whose shifting compositions made original tracks feel like concentrated mini-mixes. Equally illustrative of the group’s strengths is its marvelous new album, Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future. More than just a rehash of Underworld’s heyday, the new record finds Hyde and Rick Smith still pushing themselves into uncertain terrain after all these years.

Opener “I Exhale” is fascinating for the way that it both is and is not a typical Underworld banger. On the one hand, its chanted vocals and rock beat are by no means uncommon to the group’s sound, but as drums and splashes of processed guitar drive the track over backgrounded blurts of electronic noise, the duo recalls less their belligerent trance than something by The Fall circa The Unutterable. Likewise, “Low Down” could easily slip onto one of Underworld’s classic LPs with its distended, isolated chants of “Be beautiful!” and “Free!” (no one makes sophisticated pub singalongs like UW), but its incorporation of symphonic elements underneath its 4/4 pulse, to say nothing of its layered tribal drums, emphasizes the duo’s strength in sequencing and ambition, clearly marking them as composers as much as producers.

Elsewhere, the duo stretches even further. “If Rah” could be its demo tape to get on DFA, stripping back their sound to padded drums and punky synth riffs that compel both hips and heads to bob. It’s surprising how easily the band adapts to this mode, never sounding like has-beens desperately angling for relevance so much as demonstrating how seamlessly they can fit among their successors. Tracks four and five are glorified interludes, yet even they display Underworld’s wandering aesthetic tastes. “Santiago Cuatro” primarily consists of Spanish acoustic guitar cascading over the occasional hiss of radio static. “Motorhome” has even fewer sonic elements, a weightless space-dub in which wordless moans mingle with intonations of such mantra-esque lines as “Keep away from the dark side.” The arduous crescendo of the entire track and the occasional intrusion of a soprano saxophone-like bleat of sidewinding organ gives it a great deal of potential for growth in a live setting, where it could work equally as a transition in the mix or as a reworked payoff.

However, the album peaks at its conclusion with a pair of tracks that modify Underworld’s euphoric catharsis into a different expression of joy. “Ova Nova,” with its gentle acoustic guitar lines coiling around a skittering beat, is not a driving anthem but something more muted. Instead of imparting youthful vigor, it connotes a kind of middle-aged contentment, pulsing with warmth as Hyde raises his tenor chant into actual, lilting vocals. The album title is taken from a deathbed rave from Smith’s father, and that warped look back into the past at a command to regard the future is perhaps best borne out here, in which both Hyde’s and Smith’s daughters provide backing vocals to their dad’s elegant lyrics. “Nylon Strung” closes out with an even brighter paean to general happiness; a glittering production sheen sun-bakes Smith’s falsetto vocals, which repeat both “Open up” and “I want to hold you, laughing” over and over until they become a cosmic statement of gratification. By admitting its age and finding pleasure in it, Underworld manages to sound more current than their peers reforming for a quick buck.

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