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The past 12 months have witnessed a flurry of reminders that dubstep can be more than just an intricately sculpted deathmask for UK garage's sarcophagus. Skream's 'Request Line", fluttery and propulsive, was the sub-genre's most enchanting love letter to grime yet. Pitch's "Qawalli" went in the other direction, its distant low-end tribal thud and ghostly shards of accordion rejecting rigor mortis futurism in favour of necromantic fluidity. And then there's Burial, whose music is somewhere between these two poles, and also somewhere else entirely.
The most immediately striking aspect of this heretofore unknown producer's eponymous debut is that its beats are reminiscent of "proper" 2-step's frisky agility; except Burial's rhythms are nervous not joyous, their fleet-footed insubstantiality evoking the fear and dread of dubstep. It's not the delectably programmed beats that stick in your head, however-- else Burial would simply be Horsepower Productions redux. Instead, the success of this music lies almost entirely in its unexpected and unabashed emotionalism. Above the edgy beats hover layers of lugubrious synths, passing over one another like successive waves of blue and purple rainclouds. (The beatless "Night Bus" actually samples rainfall to heighten the effect.) Combined with its tense, busy rhythmic arrangements, the effect is reminiscent of the more cinematic late-90s techstep of Hidden Agenda or Dom & Roland.
Burial also sporadically resurrects the 2-step practice of sampling and fucking with female vocalists: On album opener "Distant Lights", a bleated "Now that I meet you..." drifts from the swirl like Brandy caught on the other side of the looking glass. This is Burial's best trump card: The handful of tracks with sampled vocals stand well above their brethren, possessing an almost manipulative quality of quivering emotional directness. Far from speaking of final resting places, the overriding vibe is one of homelessness and rootlessness, and the nagging feeling that something important has been mislaid. Thematically and sonically, the closest reference point is Tricky's eerie, foreboding "Broken Homes" (ironically, Burial's own "Broken Home" is perhaps the album's most upbeat moment, sampling a winsome reggae crooner); I'm also reminded of the black eyeliner melodrama of parts of DJ Shadow's The Private Press. Some may scoff at such middlebrow reference points, but it's these resemblances, rather than any fidelity to inner-London dance music, which makes Burial's music such a viable crossover candidate.
If anything, Burial is weakest when he conforms to the undemonstrative grimness of dubstep proper: The Spartan, assymetrical groove of "Spaceape" (featuring the MC of the same name) might sound impressively muscular over a soundsystem, but it's also the album's only genuinely unlikeable moment, and some otherwise interesting tracks such as the brooding "Southern Comfort" are dragged down by an air of tight-eyed stiffness, as if afraid of the open expressiveness which the album's highlights revel in. More generally, what prevents Burial from being quite as spectacular as its strongest moments promise is simply its inconsistency-- what we have here is a brilliant EP padded out with sketches and noble failures.
For the future, Burial would do well to concentrate on deploying these amassed secret weapons simultaneously, as he does on the astonishing "You Hurt Me", where a spiralling 2-step rhythm, foreboding Middle-Eastern drones, a disembodied diva plaintively moaning the title and a too-fleeting but essential sampled "Drop!" coalesce into a groove that's unnerving, mournful, and compulsively physical. Shepherding together so many familiar musical impulses, it's how Burial spins them into webs of torturous beauty that can make this music so compelling.
-Tim Finney, June 21, 2006
I am glad that pitchfork are covering stuff like this though. Despite the agonising self-congratulatory scenester wankery.
Simon Reynolds just wrote an absolutely wicked post as a sort of vague response to Tim Finney's review though.
Blissblogger wrote:Opening sentence of Tim Finney's Pitchfork review of Burial:
"The past 12 months have witnessed a flurry of reminders that dubstep can be more than just an intricately sculpted deathmask for UK garage's sarcophagus"
Especially as "the flurry" boils down to Skream's "Request Line" and something by Pitch and... the Burial album basically!
But he gives the latter a qualified thumbs-up. Oddlly underwhelmed by "Southern Comfort" which I think is Burial's idiomorphic classic, his "Born To Be Wild". And says there's an immaculate EP struggling to get out of a patchy album, which has a grain of truth--that perfect EP could almost be the EP that came out at the end of last year, "South London Boroughs", two of whose four tracks are also on the album, right? And are two of the best things on the album, one of them being the aforementioned "Southern Comfort". When I first heard it--that track, and the EP as a whole--I distinctly remember being agreeably reminded of gloomcore at its most morosely majestic, things like Reign's "Hall" and "Skeleton's March". Going back to it after getting the advance CD-r, though, I couldn't quite recover that sensation, couldn't quite work out what made think of the gloomcore squad, except for a certain woozy mournfulness--those sensuous canopies of sorrow-sound--a sensation of resolutely marching through an endless mental fog of despondency. What that classic Burial sound reminds me more of now is Konigsforest and Zauberberg by Gas--Mike Ink sampling refrains from German classical music and looping them over a muffled, changeless 4-to-the-floor beat, the shimmery, shivery reverberance of the original recordings adding an airy vastness and feeling of altitude.
One of the tracks from the EP --"Night Train"--that didn't make the album has a Michael Jackson sample on it, if i remember right. "Let the rhythm get into you", I think. Nice.
The other thought I had about Burial in particular, and dubstep in general, is that it's basically
Macro Dub Infection meets Isolationism, if you think about it. Actually one of the best tracks on Isolationism is David Toop & Max Eastley's "Burial Rites (Phosporescent)" and the duo did a whole album called Buried Dreams, right?.And the big isolationist dude in those days (93-94) was Thomas Koner who via Porter Ricks and the whole Chain Reaction/Basic Channel/Rhythm & Sound nexus connects up quite nicely with dubstep. And fuck me but don't the Berlin contingent actually have a sub-label called Burial Mix. (And how come no reviewer i've seen has yet mentioned Nuum-ancestral tune "The Burial" by Leviticus, or indeed the whole burial tune ,sound-system-finishing-off-its-rival killertrack connotation?).
I wrote a piece about Isolationism back in '94 and said it was very interesting but (more to have an angle than as a real critique really) had a bit at the end saying "but it's a bit white, though", pointing to similar doomy and chiliastic vibes in trip hop (tricky with "aftermath" and "ponderosa", DJ Shadow's elegaics, the darkside of jungle, etc). Dubstep, fusing the abstract atmospherics and emptiness of isolationism with the foreboding bass-pressure of the reggaematic UK sound system-influenced Bristol-London 'Nuum , could almost be an answer to that last paragraph.
The key difference between Isolationism and dubstep isn't just a matter of the first having no rhythm or groove, though, it's a subtle shift of emphasis. Isolationism had this monastic/hermetic impulse to seek out empty space, depopulated vistas (sort of ECM album cover but without the Bachelard-esque "intimate immensity", more like an aloof inclemency, an utter indifference verging on hostility to the human).... Koner with his series of albums inspired by Antarctica, or the way the other artists on Isolationism induced mind's eye reveries of deserts, tundra, subterranean grottoes, virgin planets; extremes of climate or temperature, like the polar twilight in Siberia, or the interior of the Sun. Whereas dubstep (and again Burial specifially) is very much about built-up areas, urban space, places that should be bustling with life.... but are now uncannily, eerily empty. Either that, or just lonely-making. Dubstep is desolationist.
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