Burnerism is cloaked in a sleek post-urban landscape. Its cover art, as artist Swoon presents it, is a bleak wasteland of decayed buildings and urban structures, with fading imagery of faces seemingly superimposed over the background. Swoon leaves most of the color wheel untouched for this piece as she primarily works in army green, white, brown, and some blues. There is a sense of hopelessness that comes across very effectively in this visual format and it’s converted into the audio realm for this concise album, as commissioned by Team Shadetek.
Team Shadetek is Soze.sht and Zats1 from New York City. These two fine young men are a part of something bigger than Shadetek called Change Agent, their record label for communicating their electronic creations. Change Agent doubles as their collective for showcasing the brilliant under-the-radar street works of Swoon, the artist/animator/photographer maestro responsible for Burnerism‘s cover art. Shadetek’s twisted electronic soundscapes have graced clubs in neighboring towns and their rapidly spreading reputation has landed them DJ sets in London and Birmingham on more than one occasion. In late 2003, Soze.sht and Zats1 put together a mixtape CD from their own SHTBox Studios in Manhattan that is designed to be a sort of radio set from a not-exactly-actual station called WSHT. WSHT: Radio Mix features a stream of hip hop, noise, and R&B that is fictionally broadcast to a Manhattan audience but whose source lies in the hobbit-laden hills of New Zealand. The mix connects a variety of Shadetek’s influences as well as their own compositions. Warp Records scooped them up and the finished product is Burnerism, a noisy eight-movement electronic testament to their hip hop roots.
For the most part, these instrumental compositions are the bleak works that the cover suggests, constructed with a discouraging 1950s science fiction mindset. The beats are often abbreviated with shrill bleeps and robot personality, as if scoring the assembly line at a futuristic steel factory. Headphone listening pushes these concepts further because it introduces the white noise that looms in the background and would go virtually unnoticed otherwise. “Two & a Half Months” falls dead center here and is far too electronic for head Def Juxer El-P to tangle with, but may mirror some of Fan Dam‘s tech-y sound. There’s an old school methodology to the looped drums on this one, and its huge peaks are in the screeching melody that markedly complements the beats. Shadetek’s work here includes the out of tune flutes and synths that easily match those on last year’s Breathing Lessons by the beat-making Opus duo. A far more challenging listen falls into place on the 6th track, “House of Leaves”.
“House of Leaves” is presumably named after the creepy-ass novel and seems as fragmented and disjointed as the text itself. The beats are a dizzying array of technical glitches and pulsing madness: it’s difficult to pin down any kind of pattern here. There’s a little Boards of Canada or even a touch of labelmate Scott Herren feel to the album’s closer, as “Lanolin” is as the title suggests: a tad more smooth and altogether less abrasive than Burnerism‘s preceding offerings. The beats are in at least two distinctive movements here, and gracefully fall behind meandering bleeps and what sounds like cash register tones. “Lanolin” slips around and stutters to an appropriate exit, not exactly falling apart entirely, but coming to a huge, well-deserved rest. The final moments are sparse and mellow as the duo strips away the gloom that followed them around during the previous seven tracks. While resembling others in the genre, Soze.sht and Zats1 apply their sharp formula to the records they grew up listening to. In the meantime, Team Shadetek is smearing a miserable, well-constructed, and head-nodding layer of dreariness to almost every moment.