Second Toughest in the Infants (1996) wasn't actually Underworld's sophomore album, but it was their second full-length (fourth overall) since progressive house DJ Darren Emerson joined the core lineup of Rick Smith and Karl Hyde in 1991, transforming them from a mediocre dance-rock duo into one of the most original, acclaimed, and successful electronic groups of the '90s. As with its predecessor, 1994's Dubnobasswithmyheadman, Second Toughest was a critical success as well as a commercial hit, reaching the Top 10 of the U.K. album charts and converting a significant number of American listeners right around the time that "electronica" was being hyped as the next big thing in the United States. In comparison to Dubnobass..., Second Toughest was less club-centric and more diverse in its approach, flirting with drum'n'bass rhythms on a few cuts, experimenting with slide guitar loops on the elegant "Blueski," and slowing to a crawl for its final song, the dreamy "Stagger." The trio proved to be masters of pacing and dynamics, crafting lengthy epics (the album's first two tracks collectively exceed half-an-hour) which excitedly build and release, flowing through vivid melodic themes and interlocking rhythmic patterns, and segueing from intricate breakbeats to calmer, more downtempo passages. The album's multi-part suites also harkened back to another era of "progressive" music, the prog rock of the '70s, and like that period's most popular groups, Underworld made brainy, ambitious, mystical music that was also accessible and listener-friendly. The album also remains remarkable for Hyde's surrealist, cryptic, free-associative lyrics, particularly on stand-out tracks like the choppy, Al Green-referencing single "Pearl's Girl." The album's most ecstatic moment, however, is the buzzing, gleeful "Rowla," which piles on dazzling, distorted synth riffs, hushes down for a bit, and then does it all over again. Second Toughest in the Infants endures as a landmark album, spotlighting Underworld at their creative peak, and remaining an important document of an era when experimental, cerebral electronic dance music received significant mainstream attention.
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AllMusic Review by Paul Simpson