I’m not a regular hip-hop dubstep pip-pop head. I’m not sitting pretty on the zeitgeist of electronica and I don’t listen to music on headphones much. But I do read a lot of current music news and occasionally things will get lauded that grab my attention. I take a listen and think “wow, that does sound cool, that really is different.” I can’t stand most synth based electronica, and strangely that’s exactly what the zeitgeisters seems to be into in the past few years, along with a sort of fuzzy modern ambient—hip sounds destined to become the muzak of the future. Perhaps my dislike of sheeny synths is a result of having lived my formative music years under the influence of eighties mainstream pop. I’ve heard, loved and discarded far more than my fair share of tacky synth music thanks. Paul Hardcastle anyone? No, didn’t think so.
There are plenty of other forms of electronica I dig from time to time. Burnt Friedman and James Bradell have always interested me: Nonplace Urban Field’s Nuf and Funki Porcini’s Love, Power & Pussycats were faves in the nineties. Had an Amon Tobin phase in the early zeroes. Still play Four Tet’s Rounds a lot and to my ears, the subterranean techno of Scion’s Arrange And Process Basic Channel Tracks is as much a precursor to the Burial sound as dubstep is rooted in hip-hop and reggae. However, when I first heard Burial in 2008, like so many others, I was seduced by its dark gloomy vibe. This stuff is haunting. It resonates at some subliminal frequency, a kind of virtual reality of walking city streets at night, alone, as if Burial had placed a microphone in the sewers, recorded the secret clicks and groans of the night then added a beat and amplified the results. Best enjoyed in the same way as jazz—lights out, late at night with a couple of candles burning on top of the speakers. Time to leave the club, Bumstead…
Wounder… staticky echoing pips, followed by a two step dub beat which instantly gives the feel of a night-walker. I guess it’s the crackle that somehow provides the ‘night’ feeling and the sub-bass frequencies. So there’s a regular keyboard/flute peeping, before a weird kind of seesawing noise that almost sounds like vocodered vocals. The sound field is not entirely full yet, but now we’ve got these eerie samples of what sound like growly cellos and those piping tones, comets shooting by, and that relentless oompa-loompa growl that makes me think of the Morlock from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine in their underground cave-factories. Anyway, this sets the scene for the feel of night-walkers, though it’s not quite a walking footstep beat, it’s more like the footsteps of various city-night-monsters, giant creepy crawlies. And there’s a faint tune carried in the seesawing sounds.
U Hurt Me… has a faster dubstep beat which is sort of overlapped with extra beats to make it sound like it’s too fast for itself. Reminds me of that Roni Size album from way back. Sampled ghostly falsetto vocals, and other groany noises that sound like keyboardized vocal parts, with a hard beat. That all drops out to reveal the constant vinylesque crackle and static. The vocal parts are quite affecting, as though they’re voices heard through walls, coming out of tubes and pipes, sleepers, or couples arguing, but it’s kind of like depressed monsters locked in cages moaning in their sleep far beneath the city. “Drop” – a snippet of MC speaks. Again that dubstep beat has a faint ‘walking’ feel. The vocal parts kind of sound like bits of popular club tunes still resonating in your ears after you’ve left the club, while various other sonic effects zoom in and out of the mix at random. Again, ghosts spooking the streets, or bad dreams, or muffled scenes of violence behind closed doors, given the title, “U Hurt Me.” And you hear the female vocal phase slip in every now and then with the line, “You hurt me” followed by “drop” again at the end. Pleasurably disturbing stuff.
Spaceape… goes straight in to its softened blurry-edge two step beat, then we get an MC saying something in his freaky deep voice with a strong rasta accent that makes it hard to understand any of the words. “Hallucinating sense … are in any combination, rhythmically … mind starts slipping … sensory language leaves us … we are hostile aliens immune from dying.” The music is almost entirely percussive, various beats or noises being used rhythmically. “Flexible, versatile, curious like twins, transparent as it moves with sufficient memory.” I guess he’s talking about the spaceape. “Alien virus, aliens, so viral … tentacles … slippin’ in the audio nerve directly … insidiously, are in any combination rhythmically / Sensory language leaves us with no habit for lying / We are hostile aliens immune from dying.” Yeah, cool man. No tune on this track. This voice mixes in nicely though, in that it doesn’t really distract too much from the overall sound aesthetic.
Prayer… is all rhythmic shuffle and submerged ambient noise, a beat like someone hitting a tin pot with a chopstick. The background noise is all low, subterranean eerie, as though there’s things going on down there, far away, subway trains running under the ground where you’re walking for example. This track doesn’t really have a ‘tune’ either. It’s all beat on top and warm/cold ghostly shivers underneath. Mostly to me it sounds like you’re standing at the subway platform hearing trains on other lines echoing through the tunnels. Maybe the track is called “prayer” because you’re praying for the Tube to arrive.
Distant Lights… that higher toot noise from the first track opens this, a faster dubstep beat with a strange wavering spacey noise emanating out a weird rhythm, while a vocal intones the line “now that I need you.” You can hear what sounds like a trumpet burst, but really submerged and processed into fuzz. The beat is all three dimensional hi-hat and rimshot. There’s lots of other sounds coming in and out of the mix. The falsetto male vocal part continues to repeat that same line over and over, and that fuzzed out distant barely audible trumpet line blips in and out to create distance, like a motorway full of cars way over yonder, sort of those sounds infiltrating their way through the buildings and back alleys. I think the term ‘3 D’ suits this music well because it’s as though you can get hear perspective and parallax in the recording. Some sounds like the hi-hat are crystal clear audible, the beat is totally submerged, murky, the voice is a bit further back from the cymbal, various keyboard noises and that trumpet sound rumbling away in the middle distance.
Southern Comfort… the previous track sort of dies suddenly and merges into this one, which opens with a pulsing warble, and a fairly regular kind of two step beat. Again, the murky muffled brass sounds play notes in the background. That’s my favourite part of the Burial sound – those brass bits, and the crackle, I like the sound of dust, though there’s not much of that in this track. And the tiny snippets of vocal that blip and blurp through the mix every now and then. But the cool thing is that a lot of the other blatty keyboard noises often sound like vocodered voices in the same way that a wah-wah pedal can make a guitar sound vocal-like. So what’s the scene behind this track? Hard to say. This is actually more upbeat and a little less depressing than the previous few tracks. I don’t know if ‘depressing’ is the right word—but definitely very melancholy and lonely, that sunken coming down feeling, paranoia, greeblies…
Gutted… and ‘gutted.’ “Different ancient tribes / Now we’re both almost extinct / Sometimes you gotta stick with the ancient ways / The old school ways.” A low hushed vocal, like some dude talking quietly in an alley to another guy while they light up a joint together. There’s a vocal going “My love / My love my love” and some more murky brass, quick intricate clicky rhythm track. Various garbled noises wolf through the mix, werewolves, vampires. Half submerged open throated groany noises. So ‘gutted’ then. Like, something went wrong tonight. Some kind of massive disappointment. That sinking feeling in the chest, a little bit of fear mixed with catatonia and regret. Sorrow.
Broken Home… crackly dusty murky keyboard drones, a subliminally heavy beat, some Doppler-effect vocals passing in and out, saying something like “Who spots no one but my self.” The beat drops out, a bit of twinkly ambient, those three or four notes from a busted pipe organ. The beat is the most difficult here in terms of irregularity, difficult as in difficult to dance to, too erratic. That vocal line comes back in quite a few times. Again, we have about 7 or 8 different sounds all layered over, through and between each other to create a dismal soundtrack to a miserable existence. ‘Broken Home’ – unhappiness. The rhythm of the terminally ill.
Pirates… similar beat to other tracks earlier, like little tooted woodblock churrups, floor thumps, sonic detritus of insectoid chatter, vocals of youths yelling at each other three blocks away, like ‘pirates’ – criminal-types waiting to mug you. A piercing alarm sound warning you to keep away from where the voices are coming from, sneaking through gaps between houses, over fences, down back alleys to get by unseen. Your heart beating loudly in your chest, danger lurking around the corner. That piping sound, like a submarine’s beep, the crackle of what might be rain on wet pavement. Definitely this one sounds like walking through a dodgy district full of potential threats. Black as night rain. Slowed down and sped up David Lynchian vocal effects, echoes of bad memories running through your brain. Dark captivating stuff.
Forgive… wow, I love this one. Must be my favourite here. Has this weird warped keyboard line that sounds like a voice, repeating some tones to create a faint semblance of a ‘tune’ in concord with an ambient hum-chord in the background. No beat to speak of, but lots of distant very faint static, electronic hum from overhead power lines, that ‘vocal’ line is so submerged you can’t even make out syllables, and it’s awfully sad sounding. This is by far the most ‘humanly’ affecting track here, but it’s short and fades out as mournfully as it faded in.
Night Bus… opens with the warmest synth sound, a faint brassy ambient drone, another electric hum hovers along with that, wind in the wires, data travelling along cables. The affecting warmer synth drones sound like morning, like the sun might finally be getting a look in, the darkest part of the night finally subsiding as if there’s a little bit of hope on the horizon.
So that’s it. This really is a journey through the night, starting at 2 a.m. and finishing at 6. It all takes places inside one person’s head, someone who’s taken some kind of party pill but instead of getting happy high, gets paranoid, leaves the party, misses the last train and spends the next three hours walking through spooky grim suburbs trying to avoid bad vibes, trying to keep out of harm’s way and finally catching the early bus. Half the noises only exist in this person’s head, the rest are sounds coming out of houses and tenement blocks, from under the ground, or maybe even from graveyards. And yet, the whole thing is a pleasure to listen to. Within a year, Burial would be back with his follow-up, the more melodic Untrue.