Once buried in a wave of jangly guitars and skinny jeans, EDM is back, and dubstep artists like Skrillex and Flux Pavillion lead the furry boots brigade.
No longer a small south London scene, dubtstep has gone global. But the genre’s godfather, Burial – whose 2007 Mercury-nominated album, Untrue, introduced dubstep to mainstream audiences – has moved in the opposite direction. After Untrue he fell near silent for four years, appearing only on a few collaborative tracks before returning with two short three-track EPs in 2011 and 2012. His latest release, Truant, is even shorter and its mid-December release seemed deliberately designed to miss year-end ‘best of’ lists.
This relative obscurity – especially in the U.S. – suits Burial. He doesn’t do DJ gigs, live performances or radio interviews. Until The Independent outed him as a William Bevan, a young alumnus of the Elliot School, he tried to remain anonymous. “All I want is to make tunes – nothing else,” he said, “I’m not behind the decks, I’m raving at the back. I could step up to the plate…but I don’t want to.”
And so while Skrillex plays to thousands of festival ravers and club junkies, Burial stays home. He is, if anything, the anti-Skrillex; Ingmar Bergman to the American’s Michael Bay. Disdaining the instant gratification of a heavy bass drop, Burial makes detailed, contemplative headphone music. It’s an atmospheric soundtrack for London night buses gliding through parts of town where tourists don’t go; for the city’s hinterland of graffitied walls and busted lamps, shuttered shop windows and housing estates.
Burial’s music has, if anything, become less accessible over time. His eponymous debut in 2006 showcased the signature elements of his style, mixing two-step jungle beats, shark-like bass and ‘found sounds’ – lighter clicks; hard rain; radio static – to create a melancholy sense of space. The album evokes a sense of decay, post-euphoria and urban detritus.
On Untrue, his follow-up, this desolate beatscape fills out with vocals. On track after track hollowed-out phrases drift in and out like discontented spirits, by turns distinct and indistinct.
His more recent EPs sound similar, still based on rickety two-step, heavy bass, incidental sounds and haunting vocals. The songs, however, take on a radically different form, with much longer runtimes and more complex structures.
Take ‘Ashtray Wasp’ from Kindred. Beginning with a distorted house loop, Burial layers in dark synths, sharp percussive clatter and a hard bass. A lament, “I want you,” fades in and out, occasionally submerged under the gauzy crackle of static. This intricate, saturated soundscape – simultaneously smudged and detailed – ebbs and flows over the course of nearly twelve minutes, breaking apart half way through before coming back together and then dissolving into static and rain.
Truant takes on an even more episodic structure. Like a spasmodic electronic symphony, themes emerge and disappear only to be reconstructed in an altered form. The first track is anchored by vicious sub-bass line that then vanishes only to reappear at a later stage. Similarly on the B-side, ‘Rough Sleeper’, organs and bells scuttle in and out of song sections delineated by the crackle of fire or hiss of static.
On Truant and Kindred Burial isn’t just taking the tracks from Untrue and making them longer; he’s experimenting with a fundamentally different sense of time, space and development. Each track condenses an album’s worth of variation, shifts in tone and pace, into an enormously dense 11 or so minutes. The elements slowly come together, get interrupted, repeat in another form and then decompose. There’s a sense of narrative scale isn’t present on Untrue, and an audacity of arrangement – counterintuitive twists and turns – that makes of mockery of more traditional dubstep buildups and breakdowns.
Although the form has changed, however, there’s a certain consistency to the emotional impact of Burial’s music. It remains poised between a sense of alienation and of intimacy, balancing between bleak soundscapes and elements of human warmth.
The short, pitch-shifted vocals, in particular, hover at the edge of comprehension, at times heavy with emotional implication (“tell me I belong / holding you”) and at other times distorted out of intelligibility. This precarious equipoise creates a constant yearning, longing for a human connection that remains just out of reach. Burial describes the feeling as looking out and seeing “other people sleeping out in the mountains, traders across the border, and that gives you this feeling…awareness of other people sleeping. But all it is just a firelight. You see their firelight and you know they are there.”
There’s also a pervasive feeling of nostalgia, the sense of memory and loss, in Burial’s work. Dubstep emerged from U.K. garage music, which itself developed from England’s late 80s and early 90s jungle and rave scene. These parties shaped Burial’s music, but he never took part directly. As he put it in an early interview, “I’m not old enough to have been to a proper old rave in a warehouse or a field, but I used to hear these stories…My older brother loved tunes, rave tunes, jungle, he lived all that stuff.” Another time he talks about how “listening to old tapes and tunes can’t help but make you sad…you feel like you’re listening to ghosts.”
These ghosts haunt Burial’s work, both in the details and the overall sound. It makes listening to Burial an intensely solitary experience; memories are, by their very nature, individual and particularized. In the textured details of Burial’s music – unplaceably familiar sounds like tinkling glass jars, metallic lighter clicks or snatches of half-heard conversations – we hear echoes of our own experiences, personal associations of time and place.
As a result, listening to Burial is a different not just from the effervescence of club music but also from non-dance electronic music. Ambient albums from, say, Aphex Twin or Brian Eno still offer room for a communal enjoyment, albeit one of collective head-nodding rather than raving. Burial just doesn’t work as well in such group settings; his music lacks a sort of universality necessary for a shared experience.
And so, like a lonely prophet Burial heralded a genre that never followed him; his music is a world away from the thumping wub wub of mainstream dubstep. But his more subtle influence will persist long after the club scene has moved on from the bassdrop. Curiously given Burial’s links to London, his impact has perhaps been greatest in LA. Local artists like Shlohmo and Salva, as well as clubs like Low End Theory have taken Burial’s template and stretched it in new directions, adapting the style to live DJing and drawing in pop-oriented elements – witness Shlohmo’s chopped and screwed take on Call Me Maybe.
It may not be very lucrative – few articles will be written about him like Forbes’s “Skrillex: The $15 Million DJ” – but I imagine that this anonymous, indirect influence is just how Burial would like it. Whether by accident or design, he’s harkening back to time when music spread by “rumour, underground folklore” – or at least as close to that as is possible in the era of hyperactive music blog