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Kindred Spirits: Burial The Urban Explorer
Rory Gibb , February 17th, 2012 10:06

Burial released his new EP, Kindred, though Hyperdub this week. In a piece that began as a simple review before spiraling out of control, Rory Gibb asks why he, out of all his contemporaries, has struck such a nerve with such a wide audience

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"There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in"
-Leonard Cohen, 'Anthem'

When Burial's new EP Kindred was released digitally on Sunday night, the strength of public reaction slowed the Hyperdub website to a crawl, as people squeezed their way into the label's online shop to grab a copy. The first and most obvious question this response raises is 'Why Burial?' What is it about his music - a product of the underground, and pretty far removed from anything remotely pop-leaning - that strikes such a deep chord with such a wide range of people, where most of his contemporaries fail to do so?

Burial's treatment of the human voice, premiered in full on second album Untrue, has a lot to answer for. In London at the moment, it feels as though you can't travel more than a few metres without bumping into another producer using similar pitchshifted vocal inflections to far lesser effect (the law of diminishing returns ought to be a powerful deterrent, but somehow at this point the message just isn't getting across). And it's not as though he even invented the approach - as with so many producers working within the regions skirting UK garage and two-step, its roots lie in the deft cut & paste collages of Marc Kinchen and Todd Edwards in the 90s. So why, when Kindred's opening title track flickers to life and those tiny slivers of human life immediately start to bob and weave in and out of frame, do Burial's productions still elicit such a powerful emotional response, despite operating within such an ostensibly familiar idiom?

The answer lies, I think, in his deep-seated connection to the world immediately surrounding him. Listening to any of his records – and Kindred is no exception – it's very apparent how strongly they're grounded in physical reality (something Adam Harper explored in some depth a couple of years ago in his excellent analysis of Burial's earlier music). Public transport is often mentioned in the same breath as his music – how could it not be, when named a song on his self-titled debut album 'Night Bus'? He's certainly inspired no shortage of thesaurus-abusing “it sounds like a wasted post-club journey home with the night's music still ringing in your ears” chatter. But it's notable that, when playing Kindred while out and about in London, the bleed of natural sound from outside the headphones feels completely contingent with the music itself.

The obvious elements that have been noticeable since Burial’s early work are still present: vinyl crackle and static as the patter of raindrops on the roof of a bus shelter; sub-bass as great volcanic belches and whipping wind, like the stale air and omnipresent rumble of a tube train; beats built from very organic sound sources – the clack of train carriage on rail, the clink of a Zippo lighter, the slamming of a door. But one of the first things that's striking about Kindred – the follow-up proper to the lovely Street Halo EP, and the first we've heard from Burial since his super-limited Massive Attack collaboration – is how much wider he casts the net. Within the title track a thunderstorm bellows away in the background, while further in the foreground percussion (pointing more strongly towards jungle than anything he's done before) comes in violent slashes, like the rapid sharpening of knives in a takeaway restaurant. Even the very melodic synth drone that draws the track to a close becomes, when inspected closely enough, a dissonant cacophony of car horns at a busy intersection. To city dwellers, all of these sounds speak strongly of the minutiae of everyday life within an urban environment, both through direct sonic representation and association.

At Berlin's CTM Festival a couple of weeks ago, I watched a couple of documentaries and a talk on urban exploration by Bradley L Garrett, who, tQ-conveniently, has also made a recent documentary on the Olympic development in the area our office is situated in. Urban exploration – or “place hacking” as he also calls it – is all about breaking through the surface layers of our city environment to access the hidden zones that lie beneath the façade, either for purposes of documentation or the simple thrill of discovery. These can be anything from derelict houses and council blocks to old power stations and live infrastructure, like sewers and subway lines. It's apparently experiencing a current boom in popularity, something Garrett and other urban geographers suggest is linked to a human need to connect very directly with the history of our own environments.

The modern world saps our lives of chronology. The city's surfaces – those we wander though on the way to and from work or leisure – are wiped clean every day, kept devoid of the detritus of past inhabitants. The internet, the great leveller, flattens out time, so that our access to information exists on a single plane, downplaying accepted physical realities like context or cause-and-effect. Slipping through cracks in the city's surface, it's possible to find traces of people left scattered around, allowing us to physically touch – handle, photograph or even smash – the history of that space. By breaking into derelict spaces where traces of past lives remain intact, entombed, we are able to experience a city's reality not only in three dimensions, but, with the addition of time, four. As biological creatures accustomed to the normal march of time and the inevitability of growth and decay, it's suggested this provides us with very raw emotional fulfillment at a time when those processes are harder than ever to experience tangibly.

There's been a lot of talk about Burial as a mourner for the death of rave, a hauntological reading that suggests he taps into a sort of generational sorrow for a present that never came to fruition – one where the UK rave scene continued to make good on its early utopian promise. That, as Harper explored in his analysis, is a pretty tough idea to dispute, especially in Burial’s earlier recordings, in which the primary thrust comes from the sonic properties of UK club music. However, there has always been more to his music than that. The process of change that began with Street Halo and has now come several steps further with Kindred has laid that fact increasingly bare. He’s moving into long-form, multi- part suites of sorts, and this new EP brings his music into a wider space where the “post-rave” interpretation is merely one facet of a far larger whole. Burial is increasingly playing the role of urban explorer – his music digs into the underbelly of the city and probes around, uncovering tiny fragments of the past and present which are then used to construct new narratives. Whether this process is conscious or not on Burial's part is almost entirely irrelevant to its actual impact on a listener.

Kindred's third track, the nearly 12-minute 'Ashtray Wasp', is a great example. Even after only a day's worth of listening it feels like one of Burial's richest pieces of work to date. That's largely to do with how seamlessly it builds an involving story structure from exactly these sorts of fragments. Its first half evokes sensations of a train journey, rhythmic slippages lending it the slight back-and-forth rock of a locomotive carriage in motion. As he/she rides, the narrator-of-sorts draws residue from the surrounding environment. These are more tangible things – flickers of voice (“Alright, bye” from a girl on the phone), slogans from billboards, R&B leaking from someone else's overly loud headphones, a couple of schoolchildren a few seats away blasting music on their phone, with percussion as the chug of the train itself: four-to-the-floor kickdrum as heartbeat. Halfway through the track, the narrator disembarks and walks on foot out of the station and into a new neighbourhood. Here the tone of the piece changes entirely. The tempo shifts, the rhythms flit like two-step and the music begins to decay, picking up on less immediately obvious cues and associations – the arrangement of buildings, graffiti on the walls, rubbish on the street. Throughout, all the elements that orbit the narrator are emotionally charged, strongly imbued with the weight of their own history even though they might only pass through his/her frame of view for brief – sometimes miniscule – periods of time. In Garrett's film Urban Explorers: Quests For Myth, Mystery & Meaning, Hayden Lorimer, a geographer at the University Of Glasgow, suggests that away from the thrill-seeking “urban renegade” side of things the role urban explorers play is far more prosaic, and part of a longer running tradition: that of local historians. Their responsibility is to sift through the junk of an area's past in order to determine how it reached its current state, then convey that to others. Burial, too, takes on that role, in Kindred most obviously, but also in his other recordings. He plays local historian and archivist, placing fragments of the present and recent past into an order and context that a wider audience can recognise, understand and connect to.

The last quarter century of UK dance music, so audible in his tracks, is one facet of that history. It's one that's obviously very relevant to Burial himself, something he's made clear in interviews – “I hear this hope in all these old tracks, trying to unite the UK,” he said to Mark Fisher in an interview for The Wire in 2007, “but they couldn't, because the UK was changing in a different direction, away from us.” It's relevant, too, for listeners and dancers, who have connected him strongly with dubstep, though his sound is idiosyncratic in the extreme. Both his full-lengths – 2006's Burial and 2007's Untrue – tackle the ghosts of pirate radio, with the former strongly referencing jungle and the latter drenched in UK garage and two-step, albeit twisted out of shape. That's a trait they share with the work of London collective LHF, whose upcoming Keepers Of The Light whips up a very similar atmosphere. All three albums suggest an alternate reality in which the last 25 years' worth of pirate radio transmissions, blasted out from council-flat bedrooms through improvised antennae, didn't simply vanish into the ether. Instead they all remained, ricocheting around the city, trapped within a plane just out of earshot, waiting to be tapped into. But there are other aspects to Burial's music too, superimposed on top of that one interpretation – and it's these other narratives, outside of the comparatively niche world of UK club music, that perhaps go some way towards explaining his vast appeal beyond the realm of the “headz who remember”.

When discussing subjects like urban exploration and psychogeography – even in discussing how certain arrangements of sounds can trigger certain sensations – it's often easy to tread too far into the realms of the uncanny or the paranormal. Places with a real depth of history often do have a certain vibe, some sort of psychic residue left draped over their surfaces, and popular culture often accounts that to knotty notions of spaces being able to store memories (just look at the popularity of programmes like Most Haunted). As a science graduate – and, more generally, a rational and evidence-interested human being – I find such explanations frustratingly vague. The sorts of sensations experienced by people within spaces ostensibly haunted by their pasts seem, instead, largely down to empathy. There's a great weight of emotional resonance in seeing the matter of everyday human lives – toys, clothes, cans of food – in a state of decay. Rather than being due to actual ghosts, these subjects have far more to do with asking natural questions: where are these people now? Are they alive or dead? Were they happy here? And so forth. (One disclaimer I would make is that I'm in no way versed in geographical theory, so these ideas are more logical deductions than academic truths. They do, however, seem supported by the people featured in Garrett's film.)

The emotional core of the “death of rave” interpretation of Burial's music is nostalgia – an ache for a past we can no longer access and can remember only in fragments, sensations and impressions. Listeners who experienced hardcore, jungle, garage and early dubstep first-hand might experience it very strongly when listening to Burial's music. However, it's likely to be a far less powerful force acting upon those who discovered rave's culture and chemical cocktails many years down the line (if, indeed, they discovered them at all). Burial the local historian instead stirs up feelings of empathy, a universal emotion; by cracking the surface and shedding light on the living, dying and dead things that lie within the city, he gives his music an appeal that reaches far more people than just UK club-music aficionados. The half-formed voices and city sounds that echo across his recordings pose similar questions of their audience as those a broken toy in an abandoned house might: who did these traces belong to? Who were they? Where are they now? And are these things left behind signifiers of happiness or sadness? What's so involving about Burial's music is that he relays these pieces of information with the same sort of ambiguity you'd experience wandering through a derelict building. The phantom voices that infest his tunes are intentionally androgynous, female deliberately pitched down and distorted to appear male and male shifted into a higher register to resemble female. The end result is to strip them of any easily identifiable gender – a trick Untrue's 'Archangel', perhaps his best-known tune, pulls off with virtuosic skill – leaving them free to exist as whatever form a listener chooses to visualise. His rhythms are indicative of dance styles past and present but remain volatile, ignoring commonly accepted constraints in favour of looser and less genre-defined structures.

These emotional triggers are real enough, but the way they're presented leaves acres of space for personal interpretation. Many contemporaries have drawn a huge amount of influence from Burial’s work (some with more success than others). But those copyists currently slicing and dicing R&B vocals into all manner of shapes above club-friendly garage beats fail to evoke the same emotional responses because they're far too prescriptive about what these voices are supposed to represent (or the feelings they're supposed to trigger – in the main, dancefloor euphoria). In stark contrast, it's the ongoing lack of explanation or justification within Burial's music that makes it such a compelling listen. As an archivist he simply presents the evidence within an accessible framework and, unlike so many modern electronic musicians, allows the listener to draw their own conclusions.