Future soul mechanic
We’ve had dubstep asking us to feel the music, now with Burial’s self-titled gem of a debut album we’re being asked to feel what isn’t there, what is not privileged in the usual course of human behaviour. It’s very far from being a guilty pleasure, but as Kpunk suggested its depth and range make it difficult to consume with the usual avidity reserved for the latest hot track. It’s the anti-iPod/iTunes album, where you shuffle onto the ‘most played’ until you’re sick of what was once your favourite tune. You’ll listen to this when you are your most receptive, ready to soak up the multifarious synthetic timbres.
But like the rash of iPod and 02 poptimist ads, it is obsessed with the city. Tucked beyond the south circular, out of the way, dubstep’s London prime movers share a (un)familiar relationship with the city. The ‘Distant lights’, based typically on a riff that seems to disappear, incomplete, could just as easily be Croydon’s as well as central London’s, the theme something that is out of reach. The track itself – a Spaceape-led entropic dub formed on shapeshifting electric violin strings (recurring on Wounder) – is classic hyperdub.
What is so impressive for a producer barely past his first ep for an insular scene is the fully developed musicality. Like the signature albums in breaking genres of dance music’s past – Goldie’s Timeless, Tricky’s Maxinquaye – this musicality backs up a depth of emotion that bedroom producers usually shy away from. Any bedroom mush has the wherewithal to stick in several pavlovian elements on his latest Fruity Loops/Garageband production, so that it has a basic level of depth (scroll down for my own example), but with Burial all the elements seem so well chosen and so right that they can be appreciated as a whole.
More sagacious musical bloggers will cover another aspect – the ghostly tones, the sense of loss, etc – more adeptly then me. Sampled voices and instrumentation drop in and out of the mix, beats rattle like a smackhead walking the streets hunting down his next fix and the whole fabric is heavy on echo and reverb, not as a cheap improving trick but as an integral part of the sound, where each element seems haunted by its own doppel. But what does this 21st-century urban gothic portend – are we haunted by our lost past or by the uncertain hyper-future, or by a present in which we spend too much time on the wrong priorities. The now we’re NOT experiencing as we should seems to define this elegiac mood – it’s the sound of a culture whose values are fucked. So the record crackle signifies something deeper than its usual, rather narrow meaning of ‘digging in the crates’, as expressed by the producer-obsessive. It’s a dense sound, almost impossible to listen to at surface value, which for those quick-fix iPodders may come as a shock.
My favourites are the two Aphex-style yearners – Night Bus and Forgive – which suggest that Burial can remove his dubstep chains and float on his own terms. Ambient fuzz and Basinski-esque disintegrating loops create a mood which invites reverie. In Night Bus, he makes a journey through the heart of the urban zone on the prole wagon seem so evocative. This is a splendid representation of internalised desolation, and it’s irrelevant if the imaginary subject may have generated these feelings through depleting his serotonin levels.
If Truth is going to hurt, then arguably a few of the collapsed riddims are a bit samey and maybe the sound is a little too drenched in reverb – it’s clearly deliberate that like the city itself none of the 13 tunes has any silent moments. By the standards he’s set himself, Southern Comfort is generic unstep… standard rattley rhythm, ghost riffs and other elements that aren’t quite there, counterparted by a dominant Dominator riff…but it still sounds good..
With titles like Gutted, U Hurt Me and Prayer – Burial is surrendering to the voices in his head and expressing through this ultramodern music what really matters. It’s time to recognise our own other. As Wrongside suggested on a more general post, we have this beautifully synthetic and inorganic music that is somehow far more humanising than anything that is produced in a supposedly ‘organic’ way – soul, indie or the rest of it. Burial uses the dark metal riffs and beat loops of dubstep-garage as a mere start point, and to work in this code is to have an audience that will immediately be on his wavelength. He’s taking a ‘dance’ music to which only the most standard reaction is allowed – that’s ‘dark’, ‘twisted’ etc – and subverts, in the process articulating hitherto never-expressed emotion that the wider scene would never allow and giving some meaning to those tired rave cliches. As clubland’s wheel continued to turn, maybe the hauntological aspect suggests a longing for a lost depth, a substance that the ‘stay up forever crowd’ can never formally allow. Can’t ‘dance’ music do more than just eviscerate? You don’t have to stay out of the clubs for good, but you can take time to rebel against now-time and find your emotional range. We may make out like we’re Skinner dealing with our neuroses but these tunes are the truer representation, of the sense that in our hectic lives we’re bypassing what matters, failing to concentrate on what’s gone and what may be in store. It’s elusive, but that does not mean we should not try to grasp it.