Pitchfork JANUARY 19, 2010 - by Andrew Gaerig


Underworld like records. And not just records, mind you, but an eclectic array of records not entirely composed with sequencers and drum machines. Such seems to be the message of Athens, the new full-length compilation put together by the 1990s dance music figureheads. A spattering of jazz, techno, and pop, Athens is almost exactly what you would expect Underworld's record collection to look like, plus or minus a Mahavishnu Orchestra track.

Credited to Underworld Vs The Misterons, Athens - twelve mostly unmixed tracks (the record features slight transitions but for the most part presents its tracks in full) - was compiled by Underworld's Karl Hyde and Rick Smith as well as studio buddy Darren Price and friend-of-band creative-type Steven Hall. The draw here, even for dedicated Underworld fans, seems dull: The cover features a painting by Hyde, and included are the 1997 soundtrack instrumental Oh as well as a "hidden" - it's track twelve - collaboration between Hyde and Brian Eno that closes the album on a strong note.

The selections are mostly bulletproof: If you're looking for bad words against Alice Coltrane, Carl Craig, and Roxy Music, please look elsewhere. Athens actually flows fairly nicely. From the near-ambience of Coltrane's Journey In Satchidananda and Squarepusher's extra-jazzy Theme From Sprite to Roxy's comparatively cohesive 2 H.B., then culminating with a trio of banging dance numbers, Athens makes a reasonable case linking improvised jazz and Underworld's brand of hard-charging dance. Surprising choices like Laurent Garnier's Gnaumankoudji (Broken-Afro Mix) and Miroslav Vitous' New York City prove Underworld's crates at least a little deeper than their average fan's. The always underrated Moodymann's Rectify even offers the missing link between the earlier jazz fusion and the later electro-funk: looped jazz samples.

Your enjoyment of Athens will depend disproportionately on how interested you are in Underworld's record collection at a time when Underworld's profile seems low, even for an aging electronic duo. Athens, after all, is a bit of an odd proposition (the promo materials also come stuffed with quotes from Underworld about how modern electronic music lacks musicianship). This is no surprise: You don't pull off career-defining, thirteen-minute shape-shifters like Mmm... Skyscraper I Love You by being modest and self-aware. Packaging a compilation of jazz-influenced work as an affront to modern trends, however, is a fresh brand of off-putting, one that begs the question of what, exactly, Underworld are listening to.

More likely, Athens is merely an innocuous pet project packaged as something more significant: There is an ocean of perception between "Underworld Vs The Misterons: Athens" and "Underworld and friends: Some Songs We Like." Athens never descends into outright tedium, but it offers little insight into Underworld's creativity and just as little in terms of exclusives or rare tracks. If the track-list here promises you true discovery, or if you're an Underworld junkie, dive in, just don't be fooled by the "project" posturing.