Listen and you’ll see: Robin Turner on Underworld

Listen and you'll see: Robin Turner on Underworld's Rez

On first listen, Rez sounds like it’s not going to work at all.

A spiralling riff – chirruping like digital bird song, a synthetic dawn chorus – attempts to soar high above awakening percussion. It’s as if the last few notes aren’t going to make it, that they’ll spill over and cause the whole thing to fall apart. But they don’t and it doesn’t. The riff curves round gracefully and settles in to the track’s elastic backbone.

Rez is two minutes old before the first sign of a drums – a thunderous ripple that fades up like the crunch of an approaching army. As a monstrous kick crashes in thirty seconds later, the track rears, gallops, twists, turns and discombobulates with every few bars. It shouldn’t make sense yet it does. Ten minutes of controlled, gloriously harmonic chaos, it’s a masterpiece of sly wrong-footedness.

Underworld released Rez in an era of faceless music by faceless men created for murky rooms. Yet they were very much a band, one that featured two refuges from the new romantic era and a hip young DJ from Essex. The record they made was a Technicolor, high definition explosion in dance music and – coincidently – the moment when the media flicked the lights on for the first time to examine the people behind the records.

Soon after, Underworld graced the cover of the Melody Maker. Their acceptance by the music press as a living, breathing band was the first step towards dance music going properly global. The blast wave set off from that period can still be felt today – Rez – and its progeny – are there, present and correct in the wall-to-wall trance-lite of US R&B records that currently litter mainstream radio.

Initial copies of Rez arrived on pink vinyl 12”s. With no wording on the sleeve and no details on the label, it was as if both artist and Junior Boy’s Own (Underworld’s fiercely independent record label) were unsure of what they’d created and deciding to wait and see what the world made of it before admitting it was their handiwork. Neither coyness or subterfuge were necessary – the record immediately found an outlet in clubs dedicated to exploring the psychedelic possibilities of dance music.

And truly, Rez is a psychedelic record. It’s one that’s still capable of sending the listener to giddy heights whether heard pinging as restlessly as a ping-pong ball between left and right earphones while sat upstairs on the number 55 bus on a wet Tuesday afternoon or as part of a massive, transcendent communal experience shaking through a speaker stack at 3am on some crowded subterranean dancefloor.

Robin Turner has worked on the margins of the music industry for two decades. He is the author of two acclaimed books about pubs and one of the editors of the Caught by the River website.

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