[7 September 2008]
Underground music should have its back turned, it needs to be gone, untrackable, unreadable, just a distant light.
Burial just got trolled. In August, Gordon Smart, showbiz editor for Rupert Murdoch’s sleazy tabloid The Sun, put out a bounty on the elusive dubstep/garage/2step/ghost hardware producer’s identity. His crime? Anonymity on the microstar level. In a preemptive attempt to quell what could become a vicious rumor mill (that had already reached ridiculous proportions), an artist who consistently voiced his preference to be left alone unmasked himself before the world.
Smart had published in his want ad a seemingly contrived and unforgivable rumor that Burial could be a pseudonymous side project of either Fatboy Slim or Aphex Twin, perhaps seeking through sheer guess work to find a tail to wag the dog. Also, there was the all important question: how would Burial ever show up to claim the coveted Mercury Prize, were he to win, without revealing his true identity? So, with his defenses down and no other options left, the artist formerly known as Burial posted a vaguely nondescript picture of himself on his MySpace page that slightly resembled the figure on the cover of 2007’s Untrue and dropped a long-awaited bombshell on the frothing hordes of information-age completists dripping indie-paparazzi sweat behind their myopic and monocular keyhole eyes, eager to get back to work destroying music by substratifying it into Cartesian grids.
His answer? Are you ready for it? Music’s deep throat is… (drumroll)... Will Bevan.
If you’re asking to yourself “Who the hell is Will Bevan?”, you’ve just been anticlimaxed by the false desires of a dying music press (rubbish like The Sun being the least of our worries) obsessed with eating its decaying corpse. The music press can not tolerate anything defying its categorizations (like genres) or its mythologies (like the universal appetence for rock stardom), which is partly why it has always struggled with electronic music (particularly electronic dance music) since its inception. It’s the only major stratum of recorded sound where anonymity is not only favored, but normative. In the past, this never meant concealing your name from a cloying public eager to disrupt your social life and your creative routine. It was a sign of Bardo Thodol-style ego annihilation, which helped advance the widely held theory of rave culture as a kind of drug-addled heterotopia.
So, who is Will Bevan? Will Bevan is just a name, a vicious prank on a bloke who just wants to “make some tunes”. The two words reveal precisely nothing save for the fact that The Sun obviously couldn’t give a damn who he is. By Smart’s own admission, he’d never even heard Burial’s music before he was nominated for the Mercury Prize, which would at least lend some credence to that half-baked Richard James/Norman Cook conspiracy story.
This lazy rumor-mill reportage is perhaps as troubling, if not more, as the forced exposure itself. Why call for the demystification of an artist you haven’t even been bothered to be mystified by? Just a simple listen by any seasoned music lover’s ear would reveal that Burial’s music sounds nothing like any of the projects Cook or James have been involved in in terms of focus, depth, perspective, style, timbre, tone, beat science, or anything really. If still not convinced, surely an examination of all three artists’ many interviews, available at the drop of the Google search, would reveal greatly divergent thoughts and outlooks on making music, both the methodology and what it means to them, as well as their personal backgrounds. Why Aphex Twin and Fatboy Slim then? Why not Moby? Oakenfold? Goldie? Tricky? Pole? Wolfgang Voigt? Digital Mystikz? El-B?
Nevermind that Bevan himself has been repeatedly explicit about many of the details anybody searching for a broader picture behind the Burial mystique would want to know (except, until recently, his name). The real injustice of this whole media mess is how Burial’s interviews reveal an important character to his music that his sub rosa persona only compliments, a trait easily accessible if only The Sun had only looked.
The thought of a particularly ambrosial piece of music being untouched by human hands is always an enchanting fantasy for the listener, but Burial’s music is only all-too human. It reaches back towards rave-era
heterotopian ideals, cradling the futurism of those hopes and processing them through a variety of filters specifically designed to shred the traditional narrative of musical experience.
“I liked the days when you’d hear a record and you didn’t even know who made it. There’d be nothing written on the white label,” Bevan said in an interview with Emmy Hennings for Australian zine Cyclic Defrost. “I’d stay up all night listening to the pirate stations, hoping that they’d tell me what that tune was three hours before, and they never did. And maybe you never heard it again. Or maybe you tried to record it and the tape went wrong, and it’s gone. The atmosphere in those songs; it was a miracle that you ever got to hear them.”
Burial’s music evokes these same sensations, not only in the crackle and fuzz of the prematurely-aged production values, but in his use of vocal samples and old synths, which are layered and reverberated against each other until they’re so dense that it sounds like the present passing the future by. This is particularly the case on Untrue, where phased divas and crooners coalesce into a harmonic creature not only post- and trans-gender, but completely unhuman and symbiotically collaborative. It’s also post-language, the lyrics on his album being pitch-bent and siphoned down to the syllabic level. Bevan delights in the potential for multiple interpretations within this abstruse framework, as discussed with Hennings. “My dream would be to make a record where you thought you heard the lyrics, but the next time you heard it, it didn’t say that at all.” It’s music scraped of its gender roles, communication stripped to pure emotion, music as the great unifier with no need for the aboveground rules.
The Hennings interview describes these aspects of Burial’s music far better than I can. I strongly recommend anyone with even a passing interest in this music to check it out. It truly is a bit of collaborative poetry between Bevan and Hennings (perhaps a moniker in and of itself—Emmy Hennings was also the name of one of the establishing partners of the Dadaist haunt Cabaret Voltaire (OMIGOD: BURIAL IS HENNINGS!)—with myriad valuable insights into what I consider to be some of the most provocative music of the 21st century.
Burial’s namecheck in the many discussions of hauntology stirred much talk of the ghostly disposition of Bevan’s work. But the specter contained within his music was that of the largesse of dance music’s recent past, the one which Bevan idolized from the time he was young, and the one with which he hoped to create a window for return.
“I like the old records, where you didn’t know who made them and it didn’t matter. You got into the tunes more. I don’t want anyone knowing I do tunes,” he told Hyperdub founder Kode9.
Thereby, his music is not supposed to feel “untouched by human hands”, but rather molded by human imprint, a mystical anonymity more about tapping into the collective than a kind of profound shyness. Bevan has discussed his fascination with the dichotomy of old jungle and house tracks whose optimism now seems faded and obscured, like the light of jouissance has been wholly substituted in modern music for the flicker of tech-obsessions and gimmickry. “Some of those tunes are sad because they sounded like the future back then and no one noticed,” he told Blackdown. “They still sound future to me… I’ve heard plenty of halfstep tunes that are just a Reese bassline and wannabe glitches—they sound dated to me.” It’s a starry-eyed kind of nostalgia that overlooks the wealth of crap produced during that musical past, but it’s central to understanding the innate desire transcribed within the name of his music—to be buried.”.
Bevan, though at the tip of everyone’s tongues and somehow fully integrated into the dominant electronic style of the present moment (dubstep), still feels like an outsider. Partly this is his own doing: avoiding, by and large, interaction with the global scene; communicating with the world only through Kode9; refusing to DJ or play gigs; and scorning photographs or any kind of extensive profiling. There’s also a sense in the music itself of a kind of timelessness, an anti-identity. It permeates and subsists like atmosphere, the drums become like subway tram creeks, the vocals like wilderness howls, the melodies and bass like power plant hums. Bevan likens it to a Homeric siren: “It’s like a girl singing, but far away. You just hear it carried on the air and you’re drawn towards it.”
His world is one inhabited preferably alone, like one does in the late night hours where one feels like the last man on earth. His music is the sonic equivalent of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us—no more spectacle, nothing at all left, just the dusty videotapes of the vibrant society that once was. It’s also the sound of coming home from the party, the adrenaline and endorphins still rushing through your blood, the tension and paranoia now heightened with each subsequent surrender from the heterotopia, with no place to project it all but inward.
Being a kind of lonely aesthete, the urban Thoreau type, I’m going to go ahead and guess that knowing who Bevan is not going to make him any more excited to be given the Mercury Prize should he win it. Why should he care about being honored by the same music press that chewed up and spit out not only his anonymous idols, but the greater utopian dance promise, something Bevan undoubtedly believes is larger and far more fulfilling that of the capricious cult of celebrity and deification on the part of the music press, interested more in consumption and fashion than spiritualism and artistry. In essence, by outing Bevan, they have made him complicit in these things, another prick in the wall of cultural ornamentry that cheapens one’s experience of music.
Of course, journalists have no obligation to respect the philosophy of their subjects, but they do have an obligation to represent their subject’s ideas justly. Still, when dancing about architecture, can the music ever really be enough? The Sun‘s hunt carries the conceit that somehow Bevan owes us something more than what he has already given us. By making music that people love (even if we ourselves have never heard it before), The Sun believes he is now the property of the public. It’s the psychotic logic of a journalistic economy that believes that any information, even irrelevant information, is a source of power to be lorded over its subjects, to force them to submit to the homogeny of their ideals about superstardom and its rightful hierarchy over any alternative (such as making art to spread beauty through the world).
More than likely, Burial’s music or his outlook on it will not change with the newly publicized name-drop. What I mourn though is the destruction of the urban idyll, as unrealistic as it may have been. It’s almost as if Burial’s music, faceless and nameless, was before allowed to exist in the world it created for itself as a simulacrum more real than the constructed and mapped reality we find ourselves in day-to-day. Bevan understands that every dint in the perimeter of the fantasy erodes the border between it and the far more disturbing reality, where being alone on a dying planet is a grim rather than liberating concept. But The Sun‘s objective was not to sound a realist alarm. Rather, it was to bring Burial and Bevan down to the level of hyperconsumption, brand recognition, self-applauding award ceremonies, and trashy gossip columns. For the media desperately seeks to colonize that last uninhabitable space: Our dreams and our hopes for the future.
“I think the hope you have when you’re young is destined to die, but I don’t want to believe that,” Bevan once said. I wonder what he believes now.