Society is terrible at empathizing with victims of abuse. One factor is that in searching for comprehension, there’s an inability to understand that what looks awful to the outsider is perhaps tragically familiar to those who have suffered. Brutal places feel comfortingly like home, while peace and love look terrifyingly strange. That same inability to readily accept a more mysterious span of emotional association is present when oversimplistic labels are painted onto music. This is the modern world of Netflix soundtracks, where what we’re supposed to feel has to be signaled in the most boneheaded fashion: this song is sad, this song is happy, rave is exciting, heavy metal is angry.
Such basic tagging only suffices for the most beige of souls and sounds. It’s particularly an issue with the work of William Bevan, aka Burial, where there’s always been too much going on to accept the lazy ascribing of melancholy, sadness, or longing to his music. To do so has always felt as meaningful as painting human emotions onto the faces of animals. While he has always invoked the hours of darkness, his music has never lacked warmth, and its darkness is often electrifyingly vital and alive.
Antidawn could almost be a put-on teasing those listeners and critics who remain determined to pin down precise cues in Bevan’s work. Just as the white sleeve of 2019’s “Claustro”/”State Forest” 12-inch didn’t signal some bright shift in tone, nor does Antidawn’s white package say anything. Its title is cryptic, a daybreak that isn’t so; a morning session for all-night ravers; the moment before nightfall; a black sun; a dark day? The same goes for Maya Hewitt’s cover art, the starkest image ever on a Burial record but provides no further story someone could grip to save them from drowning in ambiguity.
After nearly a decade-and-a-half of one or two-track singles and the odd three-track EP, it’s great hearing Bevan breathe out into five tracks, a full 44 minutes, that he still doesn’t want associated with whatever the idea of ‘the album’ conjures up for him. Refusing that definition presents a coherent suite of music that utterly escapes any capacity to summarize it coherently. The base materials are familiar to any follower of Burial’s work, but this is his most diffuse manifestation. One moment doesn’t describe another. No extended mood or common vocabulary is reaching across the duration of a song, let alone between songs.
I’m reminded of the baroque concertos of musique concrete, where the idea of what constituted a single piece of music was often thoroughly obscured. With Antidawn, titles are tagged to things that we can call songs for the sake of convenience but really feel like passages of sound that only their creator can truly delineate. The idea of meaning winds up in the same vicinity as a Rorschach Test; say what you see. “There’s no drums because clubland is dying!” “It’s about how weird town felt during lockdown!” “It’s about staying in bed and hugging all day!” “It’s about late capitalism and labor alienation!” Sure, you do you.
Looking to history, the evolution of more modern mixing and sampling technologies (as well as CDs, digital files, then streaming) made it possible to create records splicing together insane numbers of brief segments into ever lengthier durations. Think of plunderphonics and John Oswald splicing one thousand samples into a single 20-minute piece (Plexure), or the Bomb Squad lacing Public Enemy with a deep bed of references. I remember being overwhelmed trying to absorb the Atavistic label’s two-CD extension of the State of the Union compilation with 150 artists contributing sub-one-minute compositions.
I feel much the same listening to Antidawn. The only constant is the cutting in and out of brief vignettes, with each explored sound dying in anything from a few seconds to a minute — even in those longer durations, several other layers have already shifted, so nothing is ever familiar. The music is so abstract that it’s hard to contemplate anything before it’s already a memory. What distinguishes the EP, however, is that the exercises in excess mentioned above were often so choppy, while here there are no sharp departures, sounds glide in and out on the softest breeze or on a sudden gust.
That characteristic might lead people to associate this record with ambient music, with the ever-increasing appetite for spa sound, yoga muzak, whale song… There’s nothing here so placid or bland. While formless surges of organ meander along in what could be romantic or holy invocations, they never resolve into anything restful or mantric. A horn six minutes into “Upstairs Flat”; a shuffling beat on “Shadow Paradise” that sounds like someone working over a punchbag somewhere behind a thick wall; the ambiguous words, phrases, lyrics that ghost in-out of each track. Everything is perfectly designed to catch the ear, rub along over the gentle gravel of needle drops and vinyl crackle — then ghost out.
What elevates Antidawn to a work of genius is not just this dexterous use of materials, the intricate detail, the disciplined avoidance of obviousness. To me, this feels like an entirely new genre of field recording. Here, Bevan hasn’t merely documented uncanny fragments of nature or some grand scene; he’s come close to painting a sonic portrait of domestic life.
In the same way that life lacks a coherent sonic narrative, it’d be naïve to expect music to possess one. What exists in Antidawn is all the snatches, intrusions, distractions, and corner-of-the-eye moments of any human day on Earth. There’s no reason why anyone’s sonic reminiscence of life would result in a standard palette or presentation of sound. Here, it’s possible to hear human movement and emotion in space, but without being able to intrude further than our own imaginings. On Antidawn, what we hear is never overt or obvious enough to let us walk in Bevan’s shoes, but maybe we hear the echo of his footsteps.