Electronic Artist Burial Creates Flawless Music of Bewilderment and Compassion
Burial's Tunes 2011-2019 is music that describes our alienation while it also provides us no little comfort in the face of that gloomy reality. This is flawless music of bewilderment and compassion in equal measure.
6 December 2019
For a while, the identity of the artist known as Burial was a mystery, not to say a secret. But even when William Bevan was revealed in 2008 as the name behind the persona, we weren't any the wiser as to who Burial/Bevan actually "is". That is partly because Burial depends to a large extent on a sleight of hand that both offers and withdraws confidences, in his music and his intermittent and gnomic lyrics. The intrigue surrounding the name of the person behind the artist is indicative of that tension and the many paradoxes that go with it.
There were, in the beginning, two landmark albums on Hyperdub, the self-titled release in 2006 and Untrue in 2007. It's perhaps not a coincidence that once Bevan's name was in the public domain, he resorted almost immediately to issuing stealth EPs with little-to-no fanfare as if to reassert the authority of his mystery on his artistic process. Burial is an artist who does not necessarily want to be known (or at the very least, he insists on being known only on his terms). Once having been flushed out into the open, he immediately retreated to his netherworld, issuing a couple of tracks at a time. All of which brings us to the present moment and this astonishing 149 minutes of music from the better part of the last decade.
Tunes 2011-2019 is, on its surface at least, a compilation of the EPs released on Hyperdub between the years suggested in the album's title but of course it's more complicated than that. For example, this is not a simple aggregation of those EPs so that we can feel the comfort and the security of having them all in one place as if in so doing we could somehow nail Burial/Bevan down to a known and linear quantity. The track sequencing is not in chronological order, nor does it contain all of the Hyperdub output from this time.
There is one track, "Rodent" (2017), that is conspicuously absent, for reasons unknown. And while this collection does include almost all of Burial's Hyperdub output, it does not, for more easily understandable reasons, contain any of his numerous other releases during this time. That includes the non-Hyperdub releases, "Temple Sleeper" on Keysound in 2015, "Pre-Dawn"/"Indoors" on the Nonplus label in 2017, and various collaborations with Four Tet's Kieran Hebden, or his work with Massive Attack, among others.
So what we get here might instead be what Bevan is prepared to present to us, and it stands not so much as a retrospective but rather as a careful curation and recontextualizing of the "official" music he has put out during this period. And the rearrangement of the Burial release timeline to give us both a very satisfying and equally challenging collection of music is revelatory and remarkable.
The TL;DR account of this collection is more or less that the first disc feels like a complete and discrete album in its own right, exquisitely sequenced and curated. Meanwhile, disc two feels more like a conventional compilation and something resembling what you might imagine Burial's greatest hits to sound like. But the experience of listening to over two-and-a-half hours of this music is significantly more complex than that summary would lead you to believe. For example, if you've heard these songs before in the context of their EP releases, you may wonder about the need to listen to this collection.
But that is one of the many surprises here. The way Bevan arranges these songs, particularly on the first disc, forces you to think about his music across a significant period, rather than to react just to the release of a couple of songs at a time and to revel in the arrival of new Burial music. The juxtaposition of these tracks, and in the order Bevan has chosen here, suggests relationships and trajectories that might not have previously been apparent. It suggests further that Burial has been playing a very long game, with an artistic and emotional vision that is even more comprehensive than we might have imagined.
Taken on their own merits, the EPs under consideration here, from "Street Halo"/"NYC"/"Stolen Dog" in 2011 to 2019's "Claustro"/"State Forest" and points between, are stunning in their ambition and their variety. It's because Burial changed the music landscape (and not just the electronic one) single-handedly. Much of the popular music we have today, such as it is, would not be the same without the influence of Burial's incredible body of work, and the full gamut of Bevan's prodigious talent is on extravagant display here. Trademark Burial sounds, which felt at the time as if they were coming from another time, and perhaps even another planet, now seem relatively more familiar, but they are no less arresting for all that.
There is the signature Burial crackle, so prevalent here, that sounds like an ancient acetate played to us through old tubes and wires in defiance of the irresistible digital forces ranged against anything remotely organic. At the same time, it suggests a kindling fire that may or may not be about to explode into a roaring flame. There are also the distant voices, male, female and indeterminate, buried in the mix, spoken and singing, incanting their elliptical phrases against that aforementioned crackle, while beats come and go. Bevan's attention to or blithe disregard for time is another Burial calling card. It's exemplified by the irregular ebb and flow of rhythm and movement, from ambient washes of sound to the more or less frenetic drum and bass that occupies passing phases of longer pieces or sometimes entire tracks. And then there is the frequent, if not omnipresent, low-end rumble, so sinister and unsettling, that underpins much of Burial's work. There is infinite variety here, and it is almost overwhelming to experience it on the two discs of this collection, particularly when you consider that many of the songs here are over ten minutes long.
The first two songs, "State Forest" (2019) and "Beachfires" (2017), are instructive as a way of understanding the collection as a whole. The gorgeous and stately "State Forest" establishes an atmosphere that is at once intimate and chilly, and the song unfolds entirely at its own pace. The fact that the album opens with one of Bevan's most recent compositions rather than something from the beginning of the period under consideration is an early indicator of how he habitually wrongfoots his listener. To call this ambient is almost to suggest a motion that isn't there, and this feels more like we are tentatively and apprehensively entering unknown territory, all while being invited to do so with a reassurance that there is nothing to fear. That is a mode of operation that will reveal itself to be typical of the work on display here.
The eight minutes of "State Forest" pass with deceptive ease, even though there is something palpably uncanny about the feeling the track establishes. What is also quite unsettling is the almost imperceptible shift from the opening track to "Beachfires" from 2017. It's if the listener has been drugged or hypnotized in some way, as the gap between the songs is elided into an aural continuum. If you come to your senses at all during this passage of the album, you might wonder, among other things, how such an elision is possible, since the tracks are two years apart and yet they feel like part of a continuous whole, which indeed they are, as it turns out.
While these first two tracks are notable for the unsettling paradox that makes the listener feel both welcome into and estranged from the music, they are also conspicuous for their lack of any evidence of human life. This early material seems to depict a depopulated world with no human voices or even organic sounds, just an evolving mystery that sucks us deeper into its labyrinth. The first 18 minutes of the album pass across our consciousness vocals, almost entirely impersonal, and yet, somehow, still managing to conjure a spell that draws us into its lair.
It's not until "Subtemple" (2017) that we hear the first suggestion of a human voice, disembodied and indecipherable though it may be. It's also worth noting that while we do indeed hear a human voice on "Subtemple", we don't yet hear anything approaching intelligible human language. Rather, it's merely an inchoate incantation, as if we are very gradually introduced to human interaction in small increments. We also hear some mechanical glitches, like a machine being wound or calibrated, so that organic and inorganic sounds come together against the backdrop of a watery wash. And there is always that low rumble under the surface as though a giant wave or a train might be about to slam into us from beyond our immediate view. This is when it starts to become apparent that the sequencing of this album is part of a larger strategy.
By the time we get to the fourth track on the first disc, 2016's "Young Death", it's possible to discern some elements of what that strategy might be. First, we are going backward in time with regard to the chronology of Burial's catalog. At the same time, we are establishing a different kind of forward momentum as far as the tone of the music is concerned. With "Young Death", though, we also get the album's first lyrics, a female voice intoning "Hey child, I will always be there for you". From that ensues a beautiful, almost monastic chant that evolves over eight minutes with almost imperceptible beats ebbing and flowing deep in the background.
But the key here is the lyrical snippet, since it reveals a crucial common denominator in Burial's work and that common denominator revolves around a central paradox. Because while Burial's work can be chill and even chilling, alienating, and even vaguely terrifying, there is almost always an urge to intimacy, gestures of compassion, empathy, and reassurance recurring in a way that must surely be more than coincidental. The lyrical phrase deployed here is the first of several similar such gambits throughout this material.
This is the bait and switch of Burial, the come hither entreaty, the reassuring lyrical gesture, accompanied or followed by a distancing as if intimacy would be available if only we would allow another into our circle and our confidence. The mood is suffocating in its intimacy at the same time that it is also, somehow, utterly cold and alienating. It's very difficult to imagine how Bevan pulls this off, but it seems to be a consistent thread throughout his oeuvre and it speaks not merely to an aesthetic or even emotional double movement, but also to a psychological profile that feels fractured, desirous of human connection yet also skittishly wary of it. In "Young Death", we get the big Burial paradox written as large as we're going to get it.
A similar wrongfooting takes place in "Nightmarket", also from 2016, whose "Come with me" is also accompanied by a musical mood that goes against that seductive grain. "Young Death" and "Nightmarket" together achieve a certain kind of humanizing clarity after the double ambient whammy of "State Forest" and "Beachfires", as Bevan sculpts the album with brilliant sequencing decisions like this, rather than just rolling out a chronological collection to aggregate the last eight or nine years of his Hyperdub output
This relentless conundrum of intimacy in tension with alienation continues with "Hiders" (2013), whose "you don't have to be alone" transitions into a chilling conclusion and then we rinse and repeat with the empathetic "Don't be afraid to step into the unknown" from "Come Down to Us", also from 2013. This reinforces, yet again, our sense of the trend that is revealing itself as a deeply ingrained psychological trait which, put as concisely as possible, says that we are all in this together, but good God is it cold in here, wherever the hell we are.
"Come Down to Us" also sees Bevan at one of the many peaks of his prodigious ambition, orchestral and symphonic, majestic in its chilliness, recalling at times This Mortal Coil's version of "Song to the Siren". It feels as if all of life is contained in the 13 minutes of "Come Down to Us", repeatedly offering lyrical assurances right before it leaves us stranded in darkness once again with a spoken word statement about a fear of being unlovable. In moments like this -- and there are many of them -- it is hard to tell with Burial whether we are confidants or captors and whether we should be reassured or just plain terrified. There is deep human stuff about crucial access to other worlds and hidden parts of ourselves, and the vital importance of admitting our fears and weaknesses to be loved, at the same time that such admissions carry the tremendous risk of rejection and humiliation.
And then, as if we weren't already wrung out, strung out and exhausted by all of these musical and emotional challenges (the first disc is about 75 minutes long), we get what is the culmination of the first disc and perhaps the high watermark of Bevan's entire oeuvre, with the twinned wonders of "Claustro" (2019) and "Rival Dealer" (2013).
"Claustro" feels to all intents and purposes like a club tune, a fully engaged attempt to enact a collective moment rather than a solitary telegram from one's hideout. It is as if this entire side has been a slow emerging into animate life, beginning with the voiceless and inchoate opening tracks and evolving gradually into speech, human interaction and contact, until we reach the fully integrated and communal wonders of the last two tracks, where we are now finally more adequately equipped to do all of the things that humans do, to love, to move, to dance, to communicate, to empathize. And while "Claustro" feels like an almost fully-fledged celebration in and of itself (this is more commonly known as a banger), "Rival Dealer" is more akin to a celebration of the kind of art that thoroughly sophisticated human beings can make (this might be referred to in middlebrow circles as a symphony).
"Rival Dealer", now almost seven years old, might be Burial's single most impressive achievement, although there is a lot of competition for that honor. It seems to contain symphonic movements throughout its almost 11-minute duration that can be tracked not only by the shape-shifting musical styles that Bevan deploys, but also through a lyrical progression. From an eerie wordless opening to a thunderous and affirmative passage ("I'm going to love you more than anyone") that emerges after about five minutes into an acknowledgment that the song is indeed a kind of quest. "This is who I am" is paired with "It's about sexuality, it's about showing a person who you are / This is who I'm about/Sometimes you are trying to find yourself".
The song then broadens out into something beyond mere identity to speak of a broader spiritual revelation as the first disc draws to a close with "At night, you can see the city lights brighter than ever / And stars and constellations And it's breathtaking / The star field is just so spectacular / And one night, I saw something come down to us / Come down to us." The entirety of "Rival Dealer" is a stunning achievement, almost mapping a certain history of consciousness over the span of its 11 eclectic minutes in a cathedral of existential ache, reaching and growing toward its final outward-facing destination.
And so the first disc ends, bookended by "State Forest" and "Beachfires" at the beginning and "Claustro" and "Rival Dealer" at the end. It's an incredible trajectory, from mute incomprehension through to expressions of empathy and need. It ends in a recognition of the sublime, all of which is assembled from pre-existing and separate parts that had been hiding in plain sight for almost a decade. How could we have known as we eagerly pounced upon the morsels that Burial was throwing us that they were all part of a grand vision to explain us to ourselves?
This selection of nine songs might, by itself, be sufficient to keep you occupied for the rest of your natural life, containing as it does such multitudes of experience and emotion. And yet, there are 75 more minutes of music in this collection. On the surface, and perhaps also in fact, the second disc feels more like a greatest hits compilation, but that doesn't make it any less disarming and weird. Furthermore, if we are still reluctant to take Burial at face value, having learned of his wily ways, we might also be alert to a narrative arc at work in this second set of eight songs, concealed beneath the simple agglomeration of those blessed EPs. If we are indeed searching for narratives to overlay these wonderful songs, it might be that having experienced a journey involving incremental progression toward self-discovery and liberation during the first half of this collection, we seem to plateau in the second half. Those triumphs of personal growth and communal détente consolidate with a robust set of material that enacts a full-on blossoming of previously latent dancefloor aspirations, at times even tending toward a hedonism of sorts.
So whereas "State Forest" and "Beachfires" were tentative and perhaps even somewhat atomized ambient explorations on the way to a kind of self-actualization, "Kindred" opens disc two fully confident and more fully socially integrated, as its title would suggest, albeit that the track itself is from 2012 (another example of Bevan's long game in action). "Kindred" almost feels like a standard now, nearly eight years on from its original release, even though it was revelatory when it first came out. It's also strange that an 11-plus-minute track as weird as "Kindred" should sound like a familiar old friend, but that's how inured we have become to the sound Burial has invented. This and "Loner", also from 2012, are old school Burial, and the irony of "Kindred" being followed by a track entitled Loner should not escape our notice.
Bevan is always, it seems, working. "Ashtray Wasp", the third tine of the tri-part 2012 EP that contained "Kindred" and "Loner" is, as its title might suggest, the weird outlier of this second set. Still, its strangeness is nevertheless beautifully gnarled and sinuous. And if "Rival Dealer" was the outstanding peak of the first set, the 13-and-a-half minutes of "Rough Sleeper" constitute a worthy counterpart, albeit slightly looser, if no less astonishing, a crackling rattle bag of sounds and rhythms.
In a brilliant and tactical retreat from the dancefloor affirmations that characterize so much of this second set, the final four tracks of this collection bring us full circle, as "Truant" (2012) feels almost bucolic and recalls the opening salvos of "State Forest" and "Beachfires". Meanwhile, "Street Halo" (2011) constitutes an object lesson in beats and the low end. It's a perfect track. "Stolen Dog" (2011) feels like a kind of chamber music, and it's as if Bevan has organized these closing tracks as a coda to provide yet another bookend to the opening tracks of the first disc. And so we end at the farthest moment from the present in terms of the release chronology of these songs, with 2011's "NYC". The proceedings don't end with a whimper by any means. But we do end in a kind of serenity, and in synthesis, with that characteristic crackle still simmering along.
And so concludes what is just about a perfect collection, music that was already astonishing given even more heft and consequence by virtue of the spectacular arrangement of the tracks in exquisite juxtaposition. If you were only permitted to take one album of electronic music to an imaginary desert island, or if you were asked to nominate a single album for a time capsule to explain and justify human civilization of the late-capitalist era to extra-terrestrials, this would be all you would need to convince them both that we are almost certainly screwed and that there is, even so, someone down here who understands that and can explain it to anyone willing to listen. This is music that describes our alienation and provides little comfort in the face of that gloomy reality. This is flawless music, music of bewilderment and compassion in equal measure.
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