UNDERWORLD'S timing couldn't be better. Next month, its fifth album, "Oblivion With Bells," will be released -- smack-dab in the middle of resurgent interest in the duo's brand of dance music in the U.S.
"It's fascinating to watch," frontman Karl Hyde says of America's rediscovery of electronic music from acts such as Daft Punk. "And it's great to be around to enjoy it."
Hyde, 50, and his 39-year-old bandmate, Rick Smith, are unlikely torchbearers in this re-energized scene. Smith resembles a disheveled physics professor; Hyde is nearly indistinguishable from any middle-aged British soccer fan watching a match at his local pub.
But make no mistake: The young folks still dig Hyde and Smith. After all, these are the men behind one of the seminal dance tracks of the 1990s ("Born Slippy"), and Underworld has been leading hundreds of thousands of rave-happy kids around the world into altered states of consciousness for 15 years.
"It is still extraordinary to us that we can turn up in places like Sao Paolo and Moscow and play to thousands there," Hyde says. Indeed, it is Underworld's reputation as a live act (well-documented on their DVD "Everything, Everything") that has set them apart.
While other electronic crossover acts, such as the Chemical Brothers, rely almost entirely on music and stock visuals during shows, Underworld works a crowd -- mixing innovative real-time camera work with exotic typographical elements projected onto large screens. Hyde calls it "video jamming."
And while the big-screen graphics are eye-catching, the vocalist may be the duo's secret weapon live, dancing like a man possessed as he eggs on wallflowers.
"I try and stay in shape," Hyde says. He adds with a chuckle, "I'm usually a lot fitter when I come off a long tour."
But it's not Hyde's antics that draw crowds, it's the music. Underworld's multilayered sound, which borrows liberally from house, techno, jazz and ambient genres, has won the duo (down from a trio since DJ Darren Emerson left the group in 2000) legions of fans over the years. And "Oblivion With Bells" marks a measured -- and ambient-leaning -- return.
Ethereal offerings such as the lush, Brian Eno-esque "To Heal" and the cacophonous, brooding "Cuddle Bunny vs. Celtic Images" hint at Underworld's recent soundtrack work (the band scored Danny Boyle's sci-fi film "Sunshine"). Tracks such as "Glam Bucket" exemplify Underworld at its finest, full of ringing bells punctuated by discordant bursts of noise. But driving, hypnotic and percussive songs such as the eight-minute epic "Beautiful Burnout" will excite fans the most -- imagine a tranced-out Depeche Mode after a weeklong bender in Ibiza.
"Beautiful Burnout," in particular, shows how the duo's sound has progressively become larger in recent years, to the point that Hyde feels his crew can't be contained by ceilings that adorn traditional concert venues.
"Whenever possible, we try to book gigs outdoors," he says. "Something else happens when we are outside." In addition to Underworld's show Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl, concerts are set for Denver's Red Rocks and New York's Central Park next week.
Underworld's current incarnation might even be traced to one special outdoor appearance. In 1992, as part of the "experimental sound field" at Glastonbury, the band played a storied 18-hour set.
A few years earlier, the band underwent a metamorphosis of sorts. Previously a guitar-centric electro band in the late 1980s (Sire records released two records of that early version of Underworld, now colloquially known as Underworld MK1), Hyde and Smith recruited Emerson to DJ. Their sound soon became less reliant on guitars -- culminating in 1994's critically lauded "Dubnobasswithmyheadman."
Since then, Underworld has lost guitars entirely, refining its synthesizer-based sound. At shows, the band often has no set list and experiments with sequencing software. Sometimes, the segues between tracks become songs themselves.
Anticipation for "Bells" remains high -- the duo hasn't released a proper studio album in five years -- although there has been no shortage of output. The band has been prolific since its last U.S. release, 2002's "A Hundred Days Off," but casual U.S. fans have heard little of it.
"We've been busy finding other ways of releasing material," he says. "We actually released lots of music [recently]; three albums that were download only, five 12-inch singles and two film scores."
It was part of an effort to keep Underworld's sound fresh.
"We had to break away and start doing things like the downloads in order to get us to a place where we were excited [about music] again," Hyde says. "The album / tour formula might have been successful in 2002, but it was a formula, and to us it was the kiss of death."
What: Underworld, with special guests Paul Oakenfold and Carmen Rizzo
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Price: $15 and $20 bench seating still available; other tickets sold out
Info: (323) 850-2000; www.hollywoodbowl.com