“A rave at Sydney Opera House”: The facemelting majesty of Underworld live

Last night electronic legends Underworld brought their live show to Sydney Opera House. inthemix sent dedicated dance head JIM POE to review.

“I just went to a rave at Sydney Opera House,” a friend of mine, a veteran techno DJ, elatedly posted on Facebook after last night’s Underworld performance. He went on to describe it as a “religious experience.”

I was there and he’s not wrong. The same thing occurred to me – despite the fact that the gig took place at Australia’s most venerated cultural institution, on a Tuesday night, with the majority of the audience marked by middle age. Midway through, I looked around at two thousand people up and dancing with hands in the air, overpowered by the awesome sound and light show, as Underworld’s anthemic techno absolutely shook the place, and thought, damn, this is like… like a rave.

As for the religious themes, don’t worry, I won’t delve too deeply. It’s enough to say the grandeur of the Opera House’s Concert Hall, its vast vaulted interior shrouded by smoke and ethereal light – and, yeah, suggesting a postmodern cathedral if there ever was one – made it a memorable night indeed.

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Photo credit: Dan Boud

The thing about the Opera House is that even those of us who live in Sydney don’t take it for granted as a venue. It’s usually a special occasion when you’ve got both the time and the cash to go, and it’s usually reserved for your very favourite artists. To have a UK electronic act as long-established and beloved as Underworld on stage there felt once-in-a-lifetime.

The band are down to two members now: Rick Smith playing all the music, and Hyde on vocals. That streamlined set-up actually added to the impact. As Smith unleashed one facemelting track after another from his sleek science-fiction console, the diminutive Hyde, dressed in a simple long-sleeved white t-shirt, danced around the huge stage like a shaman.

“No one in the crowd of two thousand-plus sat down at all”

Both were frequently obscured by visual effects, ghostly presences disappearing into the fog and lights. The song titles were projected in white light, the huge, starkly plain serif typeface towering over them. The spooky minimalism of the stage show made the music seem all-encompassing.

No one in the crowd of two thousand-plus sat down at all; and each breakdown, with the pummelling beats giving way to melancholy keyboard melodies, made them roar with delight.

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Photo credit: Dan Boud

The setlist was well-crafted, with newer tracks like I Exhale, from last year’s Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future and mid-period work like Ring Road, from 2007’s Oblivion with Bells, coming on almost as strong as the classic stuff and never losing the crowd.

“They avoided the cheap aroma of a legacy show”

Low Burn, also from last year’s LP, came near the climax and sounded magnificent. Thus they avoided the cheap aroma of a legacy show; but the fact is that Underworld have never really sold out their unique formula, seamlessly combining techno, progressive, industrial and new wave; and their new work is very satisfying, if not as iconic as their ’90s hits.

But man those hits sounded good. Dark & Long (Dark Train), its eerie hurtling swoosh so familiar from Trainspotting, formed an early peak; the epic Kittens, from 1999’s Beaucoup Fish, arched over the middle of the set, the sublime keyboards during the extended breakdown feeling like the eye of the storm.

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Photo credit: Dan Boud

The sound was amazing. The Concert Hall has been criticised over the years for its acoustics when it comes to the finer points of classical music; but it was perfect for Underworld’s ornate analogue techno, as if the place were built for it.

The layered synths sounded pristine even as the bass thumped your chest. During Cowgirl, as Hyde’s live vocals overlapped his sampled voice droning “Everythingeverythingeverythingeverything,” you could pick out each layer against the rhythm and the didgeridoo-like synth noise, as well as the crowd noise all around; the effect was hair-raising.

“Kudos to them for not going through the motions of an encore”

The climactic moment near the end of the show with Rez and Cowgirl melding into a suite was always going to be my personal highlight of the night. The two tracks formed the two sides of a 1993 single – a year before their debut album, dubnobasswithmyheadman – that expanded the boundaries of what was possible in techno overnight.

To this day, no one has topped the uncanny majesty of that sound. And apparently it changed the lives of many in the crowd as much as it did mine, judging but the overwhelming reaction to those synth lines that are both instantly recognisable and still so weird and disturbing, like an alien transmission that’s been going on for 24 years.

Finally, the band hit us with Born Slippy – and kudos to them for not going through the motions of an encore, preferring to feed all of the momentum of the show into that track’s climactic power. Hyde was seemingly possessed as he chanted the scathing lyrics about laddism, addiction, racism and misogyny in the UK, still disturbing two decades after the track helped make Trainspotting a phenomenon.

Something about the darkness of those lyrics right at the close of the show made this triumphant performance feel cathartic as well as ecstatic.

Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from @fivegrand1.

Article image by Dan Boud / supplied by Sydney Opera House