UNDERWORLD Second Toughest In The Infants (Junior Boy’s Own)

Underworld’s second album (or first if you ignore their dodgy pop past, and I suspect they’d rather you did) "Dubnobasswithmyheadman" was the sort of cross-genre collision that hadn’t happened since the likes of "Screamadelica" two years previously: it took dance music and pop and melded them together so seamlesssly you’d be hard pressed to spot the join. Serious techno types, drawn to Underworld by their history of magnificent dance tracks such as the ever-effervescent "Rez", hated it because Karl Hyde’s stream of consciousness lyricism got in the way. The rest of us could just marvel at the way it removed the last remaining barrier in the way of techno’s global acceptance: no longer could anyone moan that it didn’t say anything.

Unfortunately "Second Toughest In The Infants" does much to belittle its predecessor’s good works. The eight tunes on offer are pretty undistinguished, save for the odd jungle breakbeat here or guitar loop there, and Karl Hyde’s lyrical technique makes Sean Ryder look like the poet laureate these days: seeing how many times you can say "Happy Shopper" against a dark metallic backdrop isn’t going to bring the world to its feet in admiration. "Dubnobasswithmyheadman", for all its seedy detours, closed on a note of wide-eyed optimism: "Second Toughest In The Infants" spends its entire duration snuffling around in the dirt, permeated by an energy-sapping greyness that even after a dozen plays hasn’t even started to lift to reveal the riches that must be somewhere underneath. For all the obvious ability and technique on display, it’s a very difficult album to like - you can admire the glacial perfection of its construction, but you’ll never warm to it. That such an album comes from a troupe with Underworld’s track record only makes it all the more disappointing.

UNDERWORLD Beaucoup Fish (Junior Boys Own)

"Beacoup Fish" is the third album from the new-look, streamlined, dance-friendly Underworld (they'd probably prefer it if you forgot about their dodgy pop past as the late-80s model Australian chart-topping Underworld, or their even dodgier pop past as Cardiff band Freur), successor to 1996's "Second Toughest In The Infants", an album that everybody else seems to love, much to my bemusement: no matter how much turntable time it took up its relentlessly grey-clouded visions never cleared to reveal the greatness that many suggested lurked underneath.

"Beacoup Fish" is an entirely different kettle of cherries, however. Right from the opening notes, which wash in on a tide of what sounds like distant echoes of epic house music, it's obvious that this here is Underworld's 'up' album. Not in a 'raise your hands in the air and wave them like you just don't care' sense, more that there's a subtle undercurrent of happiness at play here, the only obvious exceptions being, appropriately enough, "Winjer", a brief balladic sketch that closes the second side, and the thumping "Moaner", a "Born Slippy"-style cracker that originally lived on the soundtrack of "A Life Less Ordinary".

I won't attempt to pick "Beacoup Fish" apart any further: it's too cumulative and all-encompassing a listening experience to take to bits strand by strand. It's just 70-odd minutes of state-of-the-art British dance music, much in the manner of their cracking debut "Dubnobasswithmyheadman". "Life kid, suck the box" they chant at one point, and, whatever that cryptic credo may mean, it seems wholly appropriate.

UNDERWORLD A Hundred Days Off (JBO)

Underworld's first album as a duo, following the departure of Darren Emerson, betrays little change in their immaculately constructed soundscape. Still here are the bubbling, burbling rhythms that flicker on the outer edges of familiarity and Karl Hyde's slow motion streams of lyrical consciousness. In fact, there's almost nothing to distinguish any track on "A Hundred Days Off" from the contents of its most immediate predecessors, "Beacoup Fish" and "Second Toughest In The Infants". Not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but slightly disappointing that Underworld's music has settled so comfortably into a well-worn groove that even losing a third of the band can't disrupt it.

There are some minor signs of experimentation this time around, most noticeably the voiceovers that crop up during "Two Months Off" and "Little Speaker", almost like a wiretap into the mind of one of the more erudite "Big Brother" competitors. "Solar Sistim" and "Ess Gee" find the band thinking farthest outside the template: the former has a belching bass synth and a shuffly, laid-back drum pattern, whilst the latter is a soft-focus Dave Pajoesque pseudo-guitar instrumental. But as usual they're best at what they do best, the unashamed pounding floorfillers (see "Rez", "Born Slippy" and "Moaner" for convincing evidence). "A Hundred Days Off"'s contribution is the aforementioned "Two Months Off", the album's first single and one true moment of greatness. There's a euphoric, dirty riff and Karl Hyde's insistent "You bring light in" mantra, and it's a shortcut to why Underworld still matter, a ten-minute Rough Guide to their relevance.

And it might be instructive to consider where Underworld actually fit in the great dance music scheme of things, being, more than anything, a band defined by what they leave out of their music - the symphonic architecture of early Orbital, Aphex Twin's attempts to rewire the listener's brain, The Chemical Brothers' big beat crowd-pulling are all conspicuously absent here. Instead Underworld seem content to fiddle about in the margins with what's left, creating workmanlike, occasionally thrilling productions like "A Hundred Days Off". The case for owning more than one Underworld album is looking increasingly flimsy, especially when their fabulously diverse creative rebirth "Dubnobasswithmyheadman" still knocks the stuffing out of everything that has followed it, but if hermetically-sealed electro-perfection is your bag they still do it better than most.

UNDERWORLD Live; Everything, Everything (JBO)

According to hype that adorns "Live; Everything, Everything"'s slipcase, "Short of standing in front of the stage and stuck in between the speakers, this is the definitive Underworld live experience recorded on the 1998/1999 world tour". Whilst the album once again disproves the theory that dance music can't be reproduced in the live arena, unlike similar efforts by Orbital and Daft Punk it doesn't do anything beyond that basic reproduction. Whilst Orbital's "Satan Live" finds the duo morphing their sound into ever more improbable and fantastic symphonic forms before your very ears, and Daft Punk's "Alive 1997" is equal parts dance music, DJ set and jazz improvisation, "Live; Everything, Everything" offers, the occasional surge of audience appreciation and the halo of PA reverb around Karl Hyde's vocals aside, little that can't be found elsewhere in the Underworld catalogue. Which isn't to deny the lush, warm flow of "Jumbo", or the overwhelming bigness of classic dance anthems such as "Born Slippy Nuxx" and "Rez/Cowgirl", but unless you don't own the studio equivalents the programmed finesse of "Live; Everything, Everything" is as pointless as it is perfect.