Burial’s debut sits heavily in a cloud of the traditions and politics of Britain’s dance-music underground — 2step and dubstep and techstep and so on. For those not immersed in that tangled entity of genres and subgenres, assigning labels to this excellent collection of tracks can be more confusing than enlightening; but all you really need to know is that Burial has made an album full of nostalgia and urban desolation; its palette of swung, slightly off-time beats and wide bass is a perfect expression for it.
Reading threads on dubstep discussion boards about Burial, reveals how strong the artist’s primary elements resonate with its first audience: a British urban audience (“South London youth”), for whom a little sound, like a skittering footstep-against-space, can evoke a childhood home near a train yard, and years of drenching rain. I can’t boast a deep knowledge of this, but it’s obvious the artist’s contribution is thus more powerful than a widening of the appeal from a male-centric / “anti-pop” stance of British underground dance. It’s a legitimizing of the genre’s emotional power — for its original fans, as well as for those just learning about this music for the first time.
The injection of emotion into dubstep is important, given that this is a genre which can be characterized as only interested in disembodiment, in immensely wide bass with no emotional resonance. If you wander too far down this path, continually subtracting sounds from an original jungle prototype, you get a sound so seemingly flat and one-dimensional, it’s no longer satisfying. But the sound’s really engineered to be heard in clubs, the advanced soundsystems filling out the bass better than the best home speakers. Get Burial onto a good pair of speakers, though, and the acres of sound reveal themselves. The idea is that between the low bass and the drums (covered in the crackles of fire or rain) is a space so wide, it swallows up the listener, evoking a true feeling of 3D immersion. “Gutted”, a standout track, haunts with its slow beat and wandering crackle. The vocal sample, “Sometimes you’ve got to go back to the ancient ways”, may be referring to the old style of dubstep production of producers like El-P, but that shard of regret’s all Burial. The idea’s taken to the extreme on “Night Bus”, where percussion’s totally subtracted, and a thick fog of rain covers everything. Burial almost steps over the line into meandering atmospherics, but the commitment to the sound never falters, and it becomes one of the album’s most powerful statements. “Prayer” has a lot in common with a minimalist dance aesthetic, in the cultivation of process over destination; without huge arcs or big climaxes, the complex, deep song still worms its way into your head.
Burial goes deeper, and is more genre-constrained, than the year’s other big dub-pop release, Various’ The World is Gone; this is both a limitation and a factor contributing to the asthetic beauty of the disc’s best moments. “Wounder” may not have the staid melancholy of Various’ songs, but “Southern Comfort” whizzes with something much more stirring, sirens marking the repeated theme. There are even nods towards trip hop, and you might think of Tricky while listening to “Broken Home” — though that swirling darkness has been taken to its logical extreme.
And who cares if the guy’s actually older, and not actually a South London youth; he speaks the language with such fluency it’s genuine enough. And though he denies being a musician, and records using a simple editing program (Soundforge), Burial’s crafted an album that, using the techniques and tools of a particular underground sound, transcends its initial audience and resonates with anyone who’s felt lonely at night, in a rainy city.