There is a heady sort of minimalistic ambition inherent in approaching straight-up rock—let alone with elements of prog, jazz and electronic rock—from a predominantly acoustic perspective. Sure, many a rock album will have a couple of acoustic tracks thrown into the mix, but very few structure their most energetic songs around the acoustic guitar and natural, instrumental sounds. The latter is the case with Underground's latest EP. On Wise Up, the Aussie rockers, bring a powerful sense of pulse and drive, balancing roots rock energy with math-y, technical tendencies that seldom lean on effects or production beyond the sound created by four guys and their (mostly acoustic) instruments.
The album's opening, self titled track aptly captures the streamlined juxtaposition between acoustic instrumentation and electronic energy that define Underground. The opening riff rings and rattles with aggressively strummed guitar, a line that carries throughout the song like a synth backbone to a Depeche Mode song. But that's the thing about Underground, for as much as they can carry the feel of an electronic act like Depeche Mode, that same riff also sounds strikingly like one of the driving slide-bass lines from the great lo-fi, blue-indie band Morphine.
The thing is, Underground themselves don't sound altogether very much like either of those bands--rather, they're aggressively acoustic, with perfectly strained roots-rock vocals. So, while the track follows a familiar rock formula (intro, verse, chorus, bridge etc.), it also superimposes characteristics you'd associate with other genres, resulting in an an exciting yet approachable sound.
While the track “Wise Up” is among their more straightforward rock songs, elsewhere the album finds the band showcasing technical elements of each instrument. “When I hear Your Name” contains a math-y, almost post-rock riff that involves a tight drumbeat punctuated by gaps filled with a guitar alternating between sharp strums and tech-y descending riff. Much like the rest of the album, the song is tied around a predominant riff that really gets flushed out by the different treatments in the different parts of the song. The drums really shine through on “Like Old Times,” while “Run On” finds clear, wavering vocals against steel guitar on the albums most anthemic track. “Payback” opens with break beat-y drums and a complex, understated bass-line reminiscent of Pinback. The album's rounded out by “Price I Pay,” the EP's most rockin' track, featuring a ripping electric guitar riff front and center.
As much as Underground does feature a more prominent use of acoustic guitar than most acts of this energy level, it's hardly a gimmick or constant throughout. One thing I noticed is that even when they use electric instruments or distortion, it's always done with a degree of restraint. You'll find no wall of sound here, and if you listen even half-way close you'll be able to distinguish each individual instrument and part.
That's what really makes Underground impressive: a certain mindfulness of the product as a whole, yet an appreciation for each individual component. There's never a ton going on or a bunch of overdubbed parts—it has a live feel while still conveying an encompassing sense of scope.
As always, that probably has something to do with the recoding style. The album was tracked over the course of three days, mostly live, at Tender Trap Studios in Melbourne, with mixing duties falling to Lachlan Wooden and mastering responsibilities left in deft hands of Eddy Current. As good as any live band can sound, any music aficionado knows that capturing and conveying that can be a monumental task in and of itself, so credit where credit is due there.
Ultimately Underground manage to take some tried and true rock formulas and, through prominent use of acoustic instruments, manage put enough of a spin on them to come up with something truly energetic and exciting.
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