I never thought I would be a “techno guy”. And I’m certainly not a raver. When this album came out I was not initially aware of it. It took exposure from a party girl with whom I made out once or twice, back in late 1996/early 1997, for me to become hear this group at all. I feel pretty certain that a good percentage of my readers, all four of them, recall the track “Born Slippy/NUXX”. It was a song by Underworld which was used for the soundtrack for the movie Trainspotting. Well, I heard that song a few times around this girl, and once my interest was piqued, she played this album for me. It was at this time that I, a guitarist, realized an appreciation for synthesizers and drum machines, as well as an interest in deejaying. You can imagine where that went for a little bit.
At this point, Underworld was a trio, comprised of Karl Hyde (vocals, guitar, programming) Rick Smith (programming) and Darren Emerson (DJ, programming). Second Toughest… was released on Wax Trax! Records, a record label known more for their industrial acts than their prowess in the electronica field. Nonetheless, this album, an epic slab of immaculate production, truly underscores just what is right with the electronic genre, when it is done well.
The opening track has a three-part title: “Juanita/Kiteless/To Dream of Love” is over sixteen minutes in length and yet every time I listen, it seems as if it is over in almost a matter of seconds. I just get into the tune so much, it just flies by me. “Banstyle/Sappys Curry” is the second track. Within each of these two songs lies an exacting mixture of drum machines, precisely programmed and layered, and melodic lines that take control and leads the observer on a mesmerizing trail of electronic production. “Confusion The Waitress” is one of the sexiest techno songs I have ever heard. It isn’t sexy because of any underlying innuendo, or blatant eroticism; it is so just because of its natural rhythm and sparse, but controlled and directed, melody. Karl Hyde’s found-material lyrics are at their most masterful on this song.
“Rowla”, the fourth track, makes use of its simplistic trance-based techno sound as a perfect transition from the first half of the album into another amazing piece of electro-wizardry, “Pearl’s Girl”. With its funky but slower jungle-style beat and its buzzing synthesizer coils, it lays the perfect landscape for Hyde’s mantra-like chanting. Colors abound in this song, and not just in the lyrical imagery, but in the musical backing. “Air Towel” hearkens to the near analog sounds of their previous album, dubnobasswithmyheadman. It is light and wickedly booty-shaking. This is followed by “Blueski” which, at two minutes fifty-five seconds, is by far the shortest track on the album, and consists of almost nothing but processed guitar and airy effects from synth programming. The final track, “Stagger”, will always be a favorite of mine: the nonsensical lyrics over the top of the minimal drum beat and piano and keys, sounds even a bit melancholy. It sure makes me sad that I’ve come to the end of the album…
OVERALL RATING: This album, as I mentioned previously, had a major impact on the music industry, by showing that a dance/techno act can garner commercial success, and still retain their true esoteric nature. What I ride I get when listening to this! It earns a 9.5 out of a possible ten. I only hope that this group, who are once again a duo, and have since released several other albums of fairly high quality, will continue to do so for some time.