The debate, and it was continuing in the lengthy lines leading into the Santa Monica Civic, concerned the pop nature of Underworld’s new V2 disc, “Beaucoup of Fish,” and how it would make its way into the band’s always vibrant, industrial-strength rhythmic mix. The answer emerged two-fold, as a swirling and driving 30-minute opener delivered all the goods, from orchestrated sweeps to varying dance beats — the purest update yet of Phil Spector’s “symphonies for the kids” concept. Isolated numbers with fewer movements, fine on their own, felt incomplete, however, against such majestic musical constructions.
The Brits manipulate melodies with a sure hand: as they float in and out, some linger and some melt into the rhythm, yet it all feels complete and enriching. Paired with a stunning array of visuals hurtling by on five screens, Underworld’s kickoff was so compelling on every level that you thought other bands just don’t matter.
Buoyed by a thorough command of dynamics, Underworld’s music has an incomparable pull. Sometimes hidden within the massive beats and sometimes layered over a relentless sputtering, Underworld’s non-rhythmic sounds have a sense of familiarity. The uniqueness is in the placement. Programmer Rick Smith and DJ Darren Emerson, fiddling with banks of electronics all evening, constantly left room for human elements such as Karl Hyde’s voice, which can eerily approximate the blues singer Howlin’ Wolf, and traditional orchestra instruments to envelope the audience. They responded in a most un-dancelike fashion: They clapped to the beat.
“Cups,” the driving mid-tempo tune from “Beaucoup of Fish” that has been earning Underworld airplay on alternative-rock and college radio, was slipped in about an hour into the show. The screens, which were dominated by words such as “salty” and “suck” and images shot from a moving vehicle, gave way to peaceful shots — a bird alone in the sky, a rippling wave and the word “happiness.”
As is their wont, Underworld managed to calm down the whole affair with this peaceful package of images and sound before sliding slightly awkwardly, into a skewed reggae rhythm and, eventually, the standard steel-hard pogo meter.
Still, at almost every step the band challenged the precepts of electronic music by daringly embracing a pop mentality. As good as the sound was Saturday, Hyde’s vocals weren’t always clear, but at one point his manipulated voice could be heard twisting a chant of “I triumph” into “I try.” On both comments, Underworld stands correct.