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“Essex is very near,” intones Karl Hyde, as if initiating some arcane rite. “London we come to thee.” Underworld are beginning the first of three dates at The Roundhouse. Grittily euphoric, the techno duo are just the band this restored iron rotunda has been crying out for – to invoke the spirits of its happening and hedonistic past. The first strains of “Cowgirl/Rez” whir like crazed clocks, and a collective leer spreads among 3,000 thirty-to-fiftysomethings. Limbs numbed by treadmills, mortgages and other signs of middle-age activate the muscle memories of a decade ago’s dancing.
Best known for “Born Slippy”, the anthem from the 1996 film Trainspotting that both celebrates and satirises a night out’s argy-bargy, Underworld are masters of the extended intro and building anticipation. As each intense synth layer progressively gives way to another supremely chunky trance beat – whether it’s the moody “Dark Train” or the jagged “Push Upstairs” – the show’s climax edges closer.
When it arrives, 45 minutes from the end, “Born Slippy” is everything a capacity crowd of recidivist clubbers want it to be – a thudding, semi-delirious tribal hymn. That the buzz it creates is sustained, even heightened, through the equally pounding “Pearl’s Girl”, “Shudder/King of Snake” and “Moaner” is a tribute to the strength of Underworld’s greatest hits. A generation for whom “warehouse rave” now means an argument in B&Q remember their youthful bearings.
In his gold-lamé jacket, Hyde reminds me of Alan Cumming’s recent theatrical turn as Dionysus. Both play the galvanising sprite; Hyde only slightly less camply. Rick Smith, meanwhile, bobs behind banks of technology, assisted by Darren Price. Amid all the praise for Radiohead going it alone with their latest release, it’s worth recalling Underworld have been doing this kind of thing for five years: tonight’s gig is being streamed live on the web, and fans could buy a CD of it immediately afterwards.
Oblivion with Bells, Underworld’s excellent new album, features possibly the most reflective music of their career. On stage, however, surrounded by large inflatable polythene tubes that act as huge glow-sticks, their only aim is to ram the dancefloor. Finishing promptly at 11pm, after two pulsating hours, they orchestrated the perfect babysitter-friendly bacchanal.