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Underworld Trio Energetically Gives Electronica a Human Face

May 03, 1999|MARC WEINGARTEN

One of the most common criticisms leveled at electronic music is that it's a big bleeping monolith. But fans know better. From Aphex Twin's abstract geometry to Fatboy Slim's goofy populism, machine-made music has as many novel variations as any other pop-music field. The British trio Underworld has become one of the genre's most beloved bands by embracing electronic music's beauty and its stridence. That ecumenical approach may explain why the band performed in front of a fanatical capacity crowd at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on Saturday.

In a sector that values commitment to music over myth-making, Underworld isn't afraid to show a human face to its fans. For one thing, they don't shy away from vocals. Using house music's insistent throb as a rhythmic foundation, the band alternated between elastic, epic-length dance music constructs and conventional songs that made explicit the spiritual connection between Underworld and such '80s electro-pop bands as New Order and Depeche Mode.

Underworld also understands the benefits to be derived from a well-conceived stage show. While the band's two headphone-wearing knob-twiddlers, Darren Emerson and Rick Smith, busied themselves by triggering tape loops and drum patterns, singer Karl Hyde worked the crowd like a hot-wired cheerleader, bounding across the stage and pumping his arms to stoke the energy level. Not that it was necessary: The sheer force of the dancing throng turned the Civic's floor into a virtual trampoline.

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