Burial experiments with his genre-defining sound to challenge expectations.
Few artists get to define their genre. From Kraftwerk to Tangerine Dream. Aphex Twin to Massive Attack. Only certain acts get to leave their indelible stamp to an extent where the very mention of that genre is swiftly followed by the name of one, definitive artist. Inevitably, this can prove to be something of a double-edged sword for an artist as any new release comes heavily weighted with ingrained expectations of how it will sound. Whether it be the twitchy, glitchiness that characterizes Aphex Twin or the automated beats of Kraftwerk, the artist is expected to include one or two essential elements that made them so influential in the first place. In the case of Burial, he will forever be associated with dark, minimalist dubstep. His mark is forever etched on the genre as he has forged a sound all of his own.
Already an enigma, each new Burial release is greeted with almost religious fervor in some quarters. This may be because he has never deemed it necessary to follow-up 2007’s Untrue with a full-length album, preferring to release a slew of EPs over the years. The best of these remains 2012’s brilliant Kindred EP. With its deep basslines, cut-up vocals and grimy, gritty beats, it seemed to be almost the culmination of his sound. It was a quintessential Burial release and is almost the definitive high water mark of his murky, sketchy, dubstep journey. It existed entirely in its own musical realm, paying no heed to trends or fashions.
Nevertheless, it was 2013’s Rival Dealer EP that saw Burial experiment more with his sound and incorporate elements that seemed completely alien to what had preceded it. It alluded to an uncomfortableness in him becoming too easily definable as he branched off in other directions, incorporating '80s synths and more maudlin, introspective passages. Admittedly, every release since Untrue had seen him experiment with his signature sound but Rival Dealer felt more like him wading up to his waist in untested waters. It suggested that Burial was setting sail on a new course with the destination still unknown.
Which course he has set himself on is still not entirely clear after listening to the Young Death EP. His constantly shifting, lacerated beats are still present, but there is much more of an amorphous quality to the songs; where all traces of song structure are forcibly removed. Opener “Young Death” begins as you would expect with the sound of rain lashing down before detached, sorrowful gospel vocals give it almost a spiritual quality. So far so Burial. However, whereas before you might expect it to launch into a dub beat, it continues to bob along gently, carried on a slow, ambient stream. The manipulated vocals are given space to gently unfurl while the backing remains chilly and austere; full of his characteristic slips and hesitations. Without warning the track changes direction completely with a subtle, detached vocal and lighter, brighter beats. It’s an unexpected conclusion, and in effect, it could be a completely different song.
"Nightmarket" is a different beast entirely. Squirming keyboards and synth notes that are reminiscent of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” clamber in and out of static and sighing. It is as unsettling as it is beautiful. A beckoning plea of "Come with me" signals the entrance of a stunning house riff. It’s the kind of riff that could form the foundation of a dancefloor filler, but this is Burial. Just as soon as he has teased you with it, it’s gone. Replaced with more cinematic, sci-fi synths. This seems to be more in keeping with his exploration of sound on Rival Dealer. As a whole, it is a stop-start affair as sounds become untethered and float away. The ambiguous, obscure and intangible nature of the song only adds to its wonder. The joy of it is in the unknown. The thrill of having no idea which thread he is going to drop and which one he is going to pick up.
These two tracks see burial trying to extend himself from the genre he popularized. On occasions, it is reassuringly familiar, but there are moments when it doesn't sound like Burial at all. These two tracks are light years removed from Untrue’s more streamlined songs. They are much more avant-garde and characteristic of an artist who trusts his instincts entirely. Burial’s music still exists in the shadows, but he mottles it with specks of hitherto unheard light and shade. It shows a deft touch and confidence in his art. Burial has slipped his dubstep moorings and is prepared to follow his instincts and sail wherever the current takes him with the destination, as yet, still unclear.