I first acquired a copy of this at the beginning of 2008. I’d just moved to Hong Kong and along with Vampire Weekend’s debut album, and Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, these three albums came to define that period—memorable because I lived in a hotel for three months, the hotel itself being part of a giant shopping mall. Strange days indeed. Burial was all over the music press back then, but I hadn’t taken much notice. It was an off the cuff thing, I picked it up by chance, and by chance I happened to really enjoy it, even if it did seem a little gloomy and somber. I immediately went and bought the 2006 self-titled Burial too. In fact, unawares, I was already in possession of one Burial track on my ipod from the Box Of Dub compilation put out by Soul Jazz records, a CD I’d bought but had rarely listened to. Overall, I remember Untrue as more ‘pop’ (if you can call it that) than Burial. So, let’s give it the Bumstead whirligig once-through…
Archangel… begins subway tunnel eerie, before the thumping, complex beat asserts itself and the vocal immediately joins to bring the melody. “Holding you / Never be alone x 3 / Loving you / Never be alone x 3 / Kissing you…” These voices are all disembodied echoes, phased out, hard to tell if they’re male or female even, but that vocal refrain doesn’t let up. Occasionally we get distant synth tones rowing across the background. At one point the front layer all drops out, and we go underwater, the beat, the vocals, everything submerged beneath the two feet of concrete at our feet, or, as if we had just walked out of the club for a moment. This is more structured as a ‘song’ than anything on Burial. Certainly it maintains that spooky feel, but it’s more danceable with its insistent rhythm. Easily the catchiest song of the set.
Near Dark… I think I prefer this one though. Rhythmically it’s quite similar, a hard dull thud, a two-shuffly-steps-forward, three-crooked-steps-back, and one tripstep forward kind of tempo. Lots of disembodied voices, crackly sound effects, soft eerie synth tones and a faintly menacing growling hum. In fact Untrue seems somewhat less subtle than its predecessor, more designed for the dancefloor. “I can see my … [burred, blurred out vocal].” Lots of extremely intricate sonic sculpture here, a ring drops, doors close, floorboards creak, snippets of conversation. Very cool song. What kind of effect does it have though? With me, I find it quite depressing, a lethargic feel. Burial music, I think, is for the punter who doesn’t want to dance, who’s content to sit in the corner, high and a little paranoid, the loner. There’s a real sinking feeling at the heart of this music, the thud in the rhythm is like a metal ball chained to your chest. It’s music that invokes that sense you have that no one is really having any fun, that everyone is tripping on a false pretence and they’re all fettered in utter despair.
Homeless… is slower, blurred out vocal effects, vinyl crackle, a new beat, dragging motions, heaving tones, barely caught syllables warbling and drifting, all of it heard through three feet of concrete. But the words, the syllables, are sung syllables, pieces of old songs, about four or five of them all zipping in and out at random. The only thing that holds these songs together is the dubstep rhythms which knock against the walls of your ribcage. The snippets of vocal samples are always the most depressing, saddest tones imaginable. It’s like a cage full of convicts, arms reaching out from behind bars, pleading, pining to be set free. And yet, there’s a simple melody here, what would have been a four-chord synth pattern in the 80s becomes here a subdued hum with extra-strength bass. Such a downer mood, so realistic too. It’s an amazing feat that someone could have thought of this, to create music out of memory, out of half-heard music, out of ‘dead’ music, out of what you hear when you’re not really listening…
Shell Of Light… is a new song, but could really just be a continuation of “Homeless.” The rhythm is less intricate this time. The tune is a little more floaty, drifting this way and that, back and forth, subterranean dub, people on the stairs talking in small groups as you trip your way out of the club, a girl’s voice, but you turn around and she’s not there, rain, people in clusters, faces buried under hoodies, voices you know on the periphery of your memory, disjointed memories, all held together by that punchy thuddy rhythm. The pulse stops and we get a dreamy distant piano melody, a slow soul vocal, sunken wobbly tones, your head sinking as you slink out into the light. When the needle hits the runout groove, you let it play around a few times, not quite sure if it’s part of the song or not.
Raver… a hi-hat, a deep, low resonant two-part beat, thumping at speed, a low hovering hum and then clarity, pitch-shifted vocals, inaudible syllables. It’s more danceable with its straight forward beat and regular hi-hat tsh, but the music itself is alternately a gravelly lavaflow and atmospheric synths, punctuated with a single piercing shrunken pitchy squeal. Mostly we get synth-tones shifting about like a slowly rocking boat. It’s almost a bit too repetitive, the beat that is, and despite having a lot of wicked sound effects scattered throughout, there’s not much of a tune to this one such that I find it the least interesting track here.
Etched Headplate… opens with female British accents, some kind of conversation about “will power” and “self-discipline.” The beat is a very light tickety thing, the bass notes have been stretched into big blobs of blackness. A watery organic feel keeps this shifting about like jelly, and again we’ve got some cool vocals that create a neat melody, though you can’t make out a word. This is really amorphous, one of my favourites. The bass is really heavy and penetrating. The voices are strung out in longer lines this time, but morphed out of all recognition. Far more vocals on Untrue than Burial. This is a really ‘black’ kind of piece, a black hole perhaps, a reverse speaker that sucks all the sound into it, which is why they sound like this—they’re all being warped into that anti-speaker, like you’re hearing everything not just in reverse, but with a complete anti-sonic aesthetic where sounds fades back in time. Incredible.
Untrue… starts like most of them, with motion of some sort, dragging locomotive, planks of wood with a piece of chain, and now a male vocal, mostly indiscernible again, except for the line “the way I feel inside.” It gets increasingly difficult to write about Burial music without resorting to clichés. “Ghostly” is one, “spooky” another. “Post-club comedown,” “sub-anything,” and “disembodied vocals” are three more. There’s a throb here which sounds like any of the others, but that dies out briefly before revisiting itself once more with what sounds like snapped fingers. A female vocal, more deep, fathomless groaning, obscured syllables, monstrous despair, downward disconsolate anguish. End beat, add some Doppler effects, electronic wobbles, banshee wails, and fade out. Sigh.
UK… is all amniotic hum and pipping electrostaticness, vast shifting keyboard tones, and no beat whatsoever. This comes closest to sounding like “Kid A” by Radiohead. It has that simple four note super dreary tone thing.
Endorphin… low drones, lots of crisp crackle, and lots more pitch-shifted vocals, an oscillating electronic warble, but really quite eerie and beautiful, and a hyper-twisted pitch vocal snippet that sounds like an elf having a few words with a gremlin. Darkness abounds in this vast blind cavernous space. It’s like the Cars album, Heartbeat City, dragged underground, all the parts removed with a laser, disconnected, beaten up and bruised, then left to crawl its way back out of the cave. Freaky deaky.
I think with that description of “Endorphin” I may have finally hit on what I was looking for. Untrue somehow evokes the entire 80s, all of it. Burial is an elegy for the synth bands of the 80s. It’s taken all that influence and imagined those tunes and songs as if they’re still echoing around in the sewers and recorded them for posterity, the way they sound now, lost, stuck in some endless echo of themselves, an old forgotten underground cell. What a glum idea that is, but that is exactly what the sound of Burial is. It’s one of those thing you just know, but don’t know how to articulate. How can something so dreary sound so great? That’s the real trick here, that Burial’s magic.