Monday, December 17, 2012

Burial "Truant" / "Rough Sleeper" [aka "One/Two"] (Hyperdub)
 
To those lamenting the lack of a new LP from south London undercover grimestep wizard Burial since "Untrue" got the critical cognoscenti salivating in 2007, it's probably worth pointing out that over the five tracks on his brace of EPs this year (the two here clock in between them at over 25 minutes) he's easily provided an album's worth - just shy of an hour - of fresh material.
 
You may have thought that the "Kindred" EP - in particular sprawling closer "Ashtray Wasp" - was pushing even dubstep's notoriously blurry and bleary-eyed lines as far as they could sensibly stretch. You would have been wrong, for this new 12", despite being modestly shrouded in a typically nondescript sleeve, is possibly even more ambitious. When Eno infamously described Burial's ouevre as "dance music that you can't dance to", Burial's records were far more DJ-sympathetic than they are now. Hell, compared to this, they were "Footloose". Or "Boogie Wonderland".
 
Ahem. If "Kindred" the song mirrored the noise and hubbub of the city club, albeit tempered by interludes of reflection, as if the listener was being invited between the jinking bursts of dancefloor-friendly bass tones to step back into the cold of the street outside, these new pieces - and they are definitely pieces, not songs - are (even) more fractured, disparate soundscapes that rise to occasional crescendos as they take in and absorb passing bursts of more fully-formed music; they're patchworks seemingly in search of a unifying theme. More suburban than urban, if you like.
 
The vocal samples are actually marginally less disembodied than normal - in moments coming as close as Burial has come to carrying "proper" words upon his tide of clipped, ambient beats - but the music that surrounds them flits in and out, subsiding to silence at times before new flickers emerge: it's almost like a movie soundtrack, rather than an own-right single. And, unlike the three contrasting tracks on "Kindred", "Truant" and "Rough Sleeper" complement each other snugly: instead of the "nightbus" visions usually invoked when Burial is discussed, they recreate the feeling of movement on foot around a town or city, from the sampled sound of keys jingling in someone's pocket through to the discrete snatches of song that intrude as the ghost "narrator" seemingly moves from venue to venue, walks from outside to inside and then outside again.
 
"Truant" is hinged early on by a plaintive "I fell in love with you" motif, but otherwise it's a suite of electronic landscaping, buoyed by ramping, deeeeep bass, impaled by occasional slivers of noise, and then shot through with sudden... shards of silence. Deep into it, the distant sound of a rave, refracted through a busy night, finally gives the track a focus of sorts. Even later on, some hints of jazz force their way into the mix, as if Squarepusher had wandered in, helplessly intrigued by the sounds of what had gone before, and decided to add his musical twopenneth. "Rough Sleeper" - even the titles reflect the idea of an itinerant protagonist - is more expansive still, boasting a sculpted "high church" segment arrayed around a portentous organ sound, percussion as brisk as the last EP's "Loner", a passage of urgent and fidgety buzzing bass that segues into an oasis of beatific calm, and then a higher-tempo final stretch at the end of which the track implodes rather tartly and abruptly.
 
Both pieces are subtly and impressively constructed, and, when the component parts coalesce, deeply powerful. Listening to this - while myself moving from pavement to pavement in the downpour - a list of London postcodes began to form in my head, as I tried to whittle down the ones I'd lived in to the place that best matched the grainy timbre of these dark but bliss-stained tracks. I finally nailed it as SW9: a torrent of memories, of the crossroads lit by traffic lights, of hurried dashes to and from the Tube, of involuntary shivers, of the boys circling on bikes; yet also a place of twentysomething possibilities, of smile-making and heads-aching, of nights-out merriment, flirting with strangers, the excitement of the city. Um, that's still as close as I, at least, can come to capturing the appeal of Hyperdub's marquee signing.
 
Yep, as you can tell, for the second time this year Burial's output has defied our somewhat limited powers of description: we'd really like to see Alex Ross writing about it, but until that happens we're just happy that we've stuck with it, and not been put off (at times we were *so* tempted) by the hype. For us, "One/Two" may not have the gravitational pull of "Kindred", but it better explores the experimental themes heralded by "Ashtray Wasp" and cements Burial's position at the forefront of, well, modern music, frankly.If there were a sliver of justice on this earth, this would be Christmas number one, wherein *much* confusion would, quite rightly, reign.

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