The extraordinary music of Will Bevan, the reclusive artist known as Burial, is a soundtrack to a broken world. The collected tunes from EP and 12" releases spanning eight years are reassembled to tell stories without being slavish to chronology.
Track one, disc one is from 2019 while the closing three tunes on disc two are a 2011 EP. The sequencing of the two discs is designed to take the listener on sonic journeys which let you see (and feel) the darkness while still managing to glimpse cracks where the light gets in.
By now, Burial’s techniques are familiar. Deep cavernous drones, the crackle of worn vinyl, and the snatches of streetwise movie dialogue: Hiders begins with the line "There's a kid somewhere"; the last voice we hear is The Wire's Marlo Stanfield saying "Don't rush me on shit. I'll get at you when I'm at you". The latter could be aimed at critics and impatient fans who have been clammering since 2007's 'Untrue' for a full-length album. This collection can be counted as this and more. It's no stop-gap contractual filler.
Another feature of Burial's distinctive sound is the way male vocals are re-pitched up and female vocals are pitched down to render them gender neutral. They are also radically edited to make them mostly indecipherable. What remains is the raw emotional content minus the specifics. Listeners are left to draw their own meanings.
Kindred spirit Mark Fisher wrote how "Snatches of plaintive vocal skitter through the tracks like fragments of abandoned love letters blowing through streets blighted by an unnamed catastrophe." Fisher was right to identify that the overall atmosphere of Burial tunes is one of mourning rather than melancholia. This is desolate soul music for dejected ravers.
You have to wait more than twenty minutes before a human voice is heard on disc one. The fact that the first intelligible line comes in a track entitled 'Young Death tempers any relief you might otherwise feel. However, paradoxically, the words "I will always be there for you" express consolation and support. The three tracks that precede this are dark, wintry wordless pieces where the funerial non-beats would make a perfect soundtrack to the slow static takes in Tarkovsky movies.
A change of mood is signalled in Nightmarket. This begins with an invitation to "Come with me" and a luminous synth loop suggests a night drive through an urban landscape. When we reach "the frontier" a voice announces "I'm here" although we don't know where ‘here’ is. This enigma of arrival is more a statement of fact than enthusiasm but the following tune (Hiders) breaks into glistening section with the repeated line "You don't have to be alone" to offer tangible solace.
All this is by way of preparation for the centrepiece of the journey - Come Down to Us. Any lingering doubts of Burial's genius are effectively buried with this thirteen-minute opus. There are brief moments of void to remind us that the road is never entirely trouble-free, but the tune as a whole expresses an optimism that is all the more consoling after the bleakness of the sounds that precede it.
If you haven't realised already, these discs are designed to be heard uninterrupted from start to finish. A computerised bot intones "Don't be afraid" but the human voices are more encouraging. Some of the emotional impact is wordless as it is with Sigur Ròs' Vonlenska (Hopelandic) on their peerless untitled ( ) third album. Others comes with healing affirmations like "You feel alive!"; "Be who you are" and "There's no other like you". The tune closes with an extract from a speech by Lana (formerly Laurence) Wachowski, sister to Lily (formerly Andrew Paul) - the transgender siblings who, as the then Wachowski Brothers, made the classic Matrix movies. Lana speaks of overcoming the burden of feeling like a broken and unloveable freak before realising life involves making choices (taking 'doors' to other 'rooms') : "This room might be used to gain access to other rooms, other worlds".
Inspired by this new found sense of freedom, Rival Dealer is a relatively straightforward disco tune with conventional banalities to go with the danceable beats: "I want you .....I love you only ......I got my eyes on you tonight". On the face of it, the closing track to disc one - Claustro - is more of the same but the title should serve as a warning. Even though it begins with a similar declaration of love/lust ("I'm gonna love you more than anyone") the repetitive insistence of this sentiment becomes claustrophobic. A promise of undying love could also be a threat of an obsessive stalker. Midway through, the rhythms become heavier and the carefree character of the piece is broken. The conclusion is calmer, but the switch provides a reminder that complacency is a trap we easily fall into. The opposition to brighter feelings can never be assumed to entirely absent.
After these heights, disc two initially comes as something of an anti-climax. The tunes are individually impressive but there isn't the same narrative thrust to tie them together. The cut and paste character is especially evident in Rough Sleeper where a wide array of tones include sax and chimes. The disc opens with the stop-start choppy percussion of Kindred interspersed with low-key vocal distortions that come across like warped version of a Motown chartbuster.
The deep grooves and soulful intent of Truant are positively smoochy. The final three tracks - Street Halo, Stolen Dog and NYC - evoke the essence of Hauntology with ghostly loops of eerily atmospheric, at times almost pretty, synth melodies and vocal entreaties for empathy.
There's so much detail in these tunes that only come to light with repeated plays. Burial doesn't give up his gold for the casual listener and this explains why he attracts such a fierce passion amongst dedicated admirers.
Putting the magic of his music into words is never easy. BBC deejay Mary Ann Hobbs is one devotee who tries. In a preview to the album Untrue she introduced a Kode9 mix saying "It doesn't even sound like it was made on this earth; it could be a transmission from a galaxy far far away. It makes me feel like I'm falling in love with music at a completely different and way deeper level." I second this emotion and I dearly hope these collected tunes are not Burial’s parting statement to the world. It's too early for epitaphs.
Burial at Bandcamp