by: Chris Thompson
Twenty years after its release, we take a look back at the broad artistic ambitions of Underworld’s Second Toughest in the Infants, an album that capped their heroic ‘90s ascent and firmly solidified them as a techno supergroup….
One part ambient-cool and one part techno-jungle, Underworld is a band firmly entrenched in the upper echelons of what can only be described as the “Cool Britannia” culture of the 1990s. Their sound, otherworldly stage presence, artistic vision, technical prowess, and reach were pioneering for the state of techno music in the late ‘90s. Coming off the success of their landmark techno album Dubnobasswithmyheadman, Underworld’s release of Second Toughest in the Infants in early 1996 was both timely and well-received, for it helped solidify them as a staple of the early waves of British rave culture that was sweeping the world at the time.
Underworld’s music has impacted a diverse range of artists and has been an element in numerous soundtracks and film and television scores throughout their storied career. Released in the U.K. and the U.S. in March of 1996, Second Toughest in the Infants might have been Underworld’s second studio album, but it functioned more as a blazing torch, a genre-defining beacon illuminating the groups feverish ascension to the top, and showcasing a band beginning to come into their own musically. With stylishly-controlled songs incorporating breathtaking effect elements of techno, house, drum & bass, and experimental music in their transcendental sound, Second Toughest in the Infants spoke of Underworld’s wide-ranging artistic aspirations and their desire to exist far out in the reaches of our imaginations. Strictly an electronica act, Underworld is considered one of the top dance collective’s to come out of the ‘90s. Still to this day, the band performs with a tireless enthusiasm for their music and continue to put out material that finds them relevant and deserving of that crown.
It’s difficult to talk about Underworld as they existed in 1996, and not get drawn into a parallel discussion about something else entirely that has earned its own legion of adoring fans, and that is the film Trainspotting. Directed by Danny Boyle, Transporting is a British black comedy and crime drama that follows a group of heroin addicts in the late 1980s. Since its release, the movie has garnered near universal acclaim, both for its ability to tap into the youth subculture of the time and for the almost immediate effect it had on our popular culture. When discussing film, conversations invariably drift to the impact a film’s soundtrack has had on its appreciation, and few films have had a better symbiotic relationship with its soundtrack than Trainspotting has had with its own. Of note on the soundtrack is what is hands down Underworld’s most popular song – an obscure B-side remix of a 1995 single.
Trainspotting’s soundtrack has been consistently ranked as one of the best motion picture soundtracks in history, and it features a wide-array of songs by musical icons the likes of Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, New Order, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Pulp, and, most notably, Underworld. If there is one song that defines Transpotting, it would be Underworld’s 1995 single “Born Slippy,” specifically the band’s uptempo “.NUXX” remix, a B-side offering and less-brawny interpretation of the original song. In Trainspotting‘s final scene, Ewan McGregor’s character, Renton, carefully removes a bag of money from a sleeping lunatic’s hands. “If you were scoring that conventionally, you wouldn’t be able to hear a pin drop as he lifts the bag up and steals it,” says Danny Boyle in an interview he did for Rolling Stone in 2013. “Instead you’ve got this beat like his heart is beating at that moment.” Underworld’s song “Born Slippy.NUXX” was Renton’s heartbeat in Trainspotting’s closing minutes, a brilliant musical incarnation of his divergent mindset as he pondered his future. The song perfectly soundtracked Renton’s final moments, as he propelled himself to betray his friends, and thus solidify his future and his ‘choose life’ motto. “Born Slippy.NUXX” sonically wraps the viewer in its relentlessly pounding rhythm and shouted lyrics, serving as a siren call to all those teenagers and disaffected youth of the ‘90s on the cusp of becoming an adult, exclaiming for them – like Renton – to put away all of their childish things and start figuring out what the next step in their life should be.
It’s these final lingering impressions a great film leaves with you, before the story fades to black and the credits roll, that are oftentimes its most powerful and haunting. The Pixies “Where is My Mind” as Fight Club draws to its explosive end comes to mind when pondering Trainspotting’s analogs, or The Ramones cover of “I Did it My Way” as the final sweeping minutes of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas play out in all their cinematic glory. These are the types of songs that serve to elevate a film, allowing the viewer to retreat both visually and sonically into another realm, as the two forms of art coalesce into a single momentary dance with perfection, existing as the highest interpretation of art. Few scenes in film can say that they have had such a profound effect on our culture that they can be looked back upon and be called iconic, but Boyle’s decision to marry the final message of Trainspotting with Underworld’s remix of “Born Slippy” did just that. Not originally on the album, the song became so successful that Second Toughest in the Infants was re-issued to include a bonus CD with “Born Slippy.NUXX” on it to capitalize on the song’s success. Riding its wave of enthusiasm, the song became a chart-topping phenomenon, and has gone on to immense popularity. Because of its almost universal success and acclaim, it has been played at nearly every Underworld live performance since 1996.
Although Underworld’s “Born Slippy.NUXX” can be described as the bands “Thriller” moment, the song that made them more than famous, it’s actually a divergence from the type of music that Underworld are characteristically known for. With songs that habitually average ten minutes, if not more, in length, Underworld’s allure is in their ability to create songs that exist more as lengthy experiences than as myopic fragments in time or tracks on a CD, to be devoured individually. On Second Toughest in the Infants, this ability of Underworld’s is in full bloom, with the undulating opening salvo of “Juanita : Kiteless : To Dream of Love” coming in at sixteen and a half minutes, followed immediately by the fifteen minute plus softly comforting drum and bass of the monumental “Banstyle/Sappy’s Curry.” Each song feeling more like a participation in a mellifluous reality spun by Underworld’s cerebrally woven sound than merely a song on a record. It’s in Underworld’s ability to entrance listeners, to draw them into these realms of softly whispered poetical lyrics, interspersed with effortlessly blended electronic atmospheres from our daily lives – telephone conversations, car alarms, public announcements, answering machine recordings – and high brow rhythm and bass and ambient tempos that make you feel as if there really is a soundtrack to our lives. The reality Underworld’s music is producing on Second Toughest in the Infants feels like the actual one in which we should all reside, a music-filled realm where every task and every effort has a sound – and the reality that you return to when the music stops, and the lights go down, is the imposter, the trickster bewitching you from this truth.
There is a balance to be struck with the sort of music Underworld was creating around the time of Second Toughest in the Infants, for they recognized the need for an antithesis to all the droning fury and rapidly firing beats at the core of their sound. With “Confusion of the Waitress,” the third track off the album, Underworld rightly bring us down from the soaring heights of their epic opening two-song act. The song smartly lulls us into submission with a mellowed-down techno drip, as if we were in a cantina of the future, replicants and robots all around, the throbbing sound of a bluesy futurism drifting through the low light and smoky haze as we sip our richly intoxicating cosmic-martinis. The song functions more as a mindset, as a state of being more than as a song, and like the majority of the tracks on Second Toughest in the Infants, it’s almost impossible not to succumb to the sweet entanglement of escapism and enjoyment that the song, and the album, supplies in scores.
Second Toughest in the Infants segue from “Confusion of the Waitress” to the album’s next two techno-bruisers, “Rowla” and “Pearl’s Girl”, is stark, much in contrast to the effortless transition through the thirty-eight minutes that constitute the album’s first three songs. Existing as a break from what could be considered the album’s opening act, both “Rowla” and “Pearl’s Girl” are prototypical dance floor lightning captured in a disco-ball bottle. “Rowla” builds slowly, growling across its octaves as it surges to impossible heights, morphing into a seemingly unstoppable cacophony of erratic, rough-edged bass and drums, as if Underworld had figured out a way to turn sand paper into a musical instrument. “Pearl’s Girl” surges to similar heights, however its hurried ascension to fevered prominence takes a more obvious approach, with thumping, bone-shaking beats layered across lyrics rapped in Underworld’s charismatic British twang, the word “crazy” wildly looping into infinity as sampled, robotic sounding voices hammer powerfully against the droning rhythm and undulating walls of staggering sound. The duo of songs are ‘90s dancehall brilliance, a brand of musical fury sure to leave you bent and broken on the dance floor, your body still spasming to the vibrations of the vanquished rhythms, and chasing the echo of the beats like one pursues the fleeting tendrils of a dream.
“Air Towel,” arriving fifty-four minutes into the album, paints a more mellow mood, paralleling “Confusion of the Waitress” with its bold push further into the realm of bluesy futurism. It’s a sleek and unearthly sounding song, as if it had been made on an alien spaceship and transported down to Earth on a laser beam. And just in case Underworld’s concept of mellow, low-key, and hypnotic enchantment on Second Toughest in the Infants wasn’t made entirely clear enough before, “Blueski,” an aptly named song, further drives home the rhetoric with the dreamy push and pull of a steel guitar swimming in a sea of gilded calm. It’s the comedown song from the impossible dream. The late night walk home with your closest friend, your tired and aching head resting on their shoulder, the comfort and calm of the knowledge that nothing will ever be as real, or as good, as this washing over you in crashing waves of ease. With “Stagger,” the final mellow techno track on Second Toughest in the Infants, Underworld achieves what it set out to do, cementing an album that is more aptly appreciated as a whole than it is by examining its individual parts, and achieving a level of musical transcendence not often encountered in our lives.
When considering the songs on Second Toughest in the Infants, it’s easy to throw around words and phrases like “epic,” “big album,” “can layer with the best of them,” “pioneers,” and “masterpiece,” simply because all of these accolades are not only experienced, but because they hold immense truth. The lush concepts and knockout punches of spectacularly frenzied techno and ambient downtempo pacing coalesce to create a sleek yet effortless groove across the entirety of the album, with rich layering and segues from uptempo to downbeat that flirt with the types of experiences only the purest of Ecstasy or LSD could produce. It’s the sort of dream that all of us chase when we decide to expand our consciousness through meditation, pharmaceuticals, or hallucinogens. However, Second Toughest in the Infants is its own drug, with the only barrier to its enjoyment the desire to listen. The album is the perfect, closed off system, existing as both the cause and the effect of our enjoyment simultaneously. It’s the Alpha and the Omega of its genre. The music boiling off of Second Toughest in the Infants is cut from a different cloth. It’s in a league all of its own, and is the sort of perfect encapsulation of what we should all be striving for in terms of greatness, an infinite sound that is both a single note echoing across the universe and all the notes at once.