Resident Advisor DECEMBER 2, 2009 - by Patrick Sisson


Considering Underworld's elder status in the dance world and the connotations attached to the city-state of Athens, it's perhaps no surprise the duo wants to drop a bit of knowledge on their new CD. They don't always make the wisest choices - the Brian Eno/Karl Hyde collaboration that concludes the mix, Beebop Hurry, is a hyperactive exercise in knob twiddling, a backdrop for Hyde's Beat-like stream of observations. But they do concoct an hour-long lesson plan that threads together musical ideas that is superior to any second-tier Back to Mine mix.

With Athens, Hyde and Rick Smith, along with DJ Darren Price and Junior Boy's Own co-founder Steven Hall, ditched the more rock-affected sound of Oblivion with Bells, combined their record collections and collaborated to showcase the evolution of the groove. That claim itself is clichéd, and Athens doesn't present any revolutionary thesis on the subject. But the record is a tasteful blend made with a slow build and steady hand. The opener, Alice Coltrane's legendary Journey In Satchidananda, isn't obscure by any measure. But the thick, soulful bassline Cecil McBee lays down, offset by Pharoah Sanders' ribbon-like saxophone, sets the stage, and the song functions as an expansive introduction much like it did on Coltrane's album. Mahavishnu Orchestra's You Know You Know and Squarepusher's Theme From Sprite follow. Chronologically distant but stylistically similar, both are fusion-style jams featuring instrumental virtuosos (John McLaughlin and Tom Jenkinson).

From this point on, the tracklisting builds towards Oh, a Rez-like Underworld jam first heard on the soundtrack to Danny Boyle's 1997 film A Life Less Ordinary. Soft Machine (Penny Hitch) and Roxy Music (2 H.B.) incorporate art-rock synth grooves while Space Odyssey, a reworking of a Marcus Belgrave song recorded by Carl Craig's Detroit Experiment project, showcases an obvious bridge between techno and its artistic predecessors. The song's laid-back drum patterns buttress a series of cascading synth runs and scrappy trumpet notes. Moodyman's Rectify and Osunlade's The Promise continue the lineage. It's an easy transition between Osulande's polyrhythms and circular melodies - a slight drop in tempo - and the hi-hat surge and jazzy synth notes that surge throughout Oh. The mix levels off a bit with lengthy jams - Laurent Garnier's Gnanmankoudji (Broken Afro Remix) and Miroslav Vitous' New York City and ends, abruptly, with the aforementioned Eno/Hyde joint, a set of squiggly sounds and impressionistic lyrics.

It may come off as a backhanded compliment, but the mix, which stretches out a bit too long and doesn't dig too deep, is well built, to the point that the Underworld retread (Oh) and the producer playtime at the end are far from the highlights. Eschewing attempts to force out a massive single or reconnect with current trends, Underworld take a relaxed trip through earlier musical infatuations, seeking to prove nothing except how much they enjoy the exercise. Age can bring wisdom.