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Rival Dreamer: Burial's Tunes, 2011 to 2019
Adam Lehrer , December 5th, 2019 09:54

Beneath the crackle and hiss, Adam Lehrer finds a portal to a better future in a new compilation of Burial's 12"s and EPs

In a 2007 article for The Wire, Mark Fisher wrote that Burial’s 2006 debut was “a vivid audio portrait of a wounded South London, a semi-abstract sound painting of a city’s disappointment and anguish.” With twelve years of hindsight, I’d amend that statement: it was a vivid audio portrait of an entire generation’s disappointment and anguish. In 2006 and ‘07, the years of Burial’s first two album releases, I was at university in Tucson, Arizona. I was studying philosophy and art history, trying my hand at various creative disciplines both literary and visual, strung out on (hard) drugs, and alienated. 

My tastes reflected my disaffection: harsh noise (To Live and Shave in LA, Cock ESP) and black metal (Darkthrone, Beherit), Ballard and Burroughs, Cronenberg and Żuławski. Despite their divergences from my normal tastes, something about Burial’s first two albums struck me like lightning. I became engrossed in his music and in the writing of Fisher, who would not only introduce me to other Burial-adjacent musicians like The Caretaker, but also to new literature, ideas and critical theory. Partially because of Burial, my philosophical, aesthetic, and political sensibilities formed and sharpened.

Burial once told an Australian critic that the title of his breakout album Untrue refers to when “something is off-key, there’s something wrong, an atmosphere has entered the room.” This is exactly what I was feeling in 2007, that everything I had ever been told about hard work paying off was a lie. That my academic success would be followed by financial failure (I was correct). Burial’s music was the soundtrack for a generation in limbo. With Tunes, 2011 to 2019, a collection of songs released originally in EP form over the last eight years, sequenced by Burial himself and released to commemorate Hyperdub’s fifteenth anniversary, we are able to make cohesive sense of how Burial’s aesthetic grew more expansive and conceptually concise while mirroring our evolution through a decaying society.

In Hyperdub’s publicity for the release, the label announces its desire for listeners to hear the album as “familiar, but not familiar.” Indeed, none of these tracks are unknown to Burial fans, but by sequencing them into a narrative structure, Burial’s aesthetic materialisation of the hauntological temporal disjunction is emphasised. In the twelve years since the release of Untrue, Burial’s aesthetic markers have grown easy to identify: slippery R&B-infused rhythms, tape hiss, gloomy atmospheres, manipulated soulful vocals, a subtle cheekiness (his iconically melancholic anthem ‘Arcangel’ is in mourning of the artist’s dog, allegedly), and the ever important crackle of old vinyl. But nevertheless, there have been important new elements introduced into his oeuvre. Burial’s sound evokes time at a standstill. His recent releases seem to materialise from an ether in which there is no beginning and no end. The sound evokes time at a standstill. 

True to its temporally ambivalent form, the collection begins at its logical end with the track ‘State Forest’ that was originally released on a two-track EP in July of this year. The near beatless track – marred by chilly field recordings and gloomy, distorted synths – evokes the simmering angst of the digital universe. Lewis Gordon of Resident Advisor writes: “For all the video game samples Burial has used throughout his fifteen year career, ‘State Forest’ is perhaps the closest he’s come to realizing a plausible video game soundtrack.” The use of ‘State Forest’ as the collection’s opening track works like an electrical socket in Twin Peaks: a material ripple in the fabric of reality that opens up the timeless and fractured Burial universe. Welcome to the Black Lodge, indeed.

‘State Forest’ bleeds into ‘Beachfires,’ another beatless affair, that originally appeared on a 2017 EP. While the producer is capable of making music that recalls garage, drum n’ bass, and other abstract forms of UK dance music, he also generates some of the most chillingly evocative ambient soundscapes of any producer recording. ‘Subtemple,’ which follows ‘Beachfires,’ (interestingly, the track order is reversed from the EP on which both tracks were released) is as disorienting and frightening as anything made by the more prototypically “dark” hauntological ambient sound makers: the subtle horrors of Indignant Senility, Aseptic Void, and even the master Leyland Kirby’s The Caretaker are all rivalled by Burial when he immerses himself in the “witchier” aspects of his sonic craft. The sounds on the track – an omnipresent industrial rumbling, wheezing, birds chirping – are uncannily familiar. They exaggerate the persistent feeling that something is wrong in this culture.

The glorious ‘Rival Dealer’ from 2013 is an apocalyptic rave banger for a confused generation. To paraphrase Žižek’s take on the fallout of Occupy Wall Street, the song feels like it “expresses a spirit of revolt without revolution.” The track – which is over ten minutes long – samples and manipulates pop music philistine Gavin DeGraw’s ‘More Than Anyone’ vocal lines into a barely audible anguished muttering over some of Burial’s hardest hitting club beats. By using such rank, cheesy source material, Burial demonstrates just how far out of phase popular culture is with the populations it entertains. While humans live in more poverty and despair than any in generations, commercial culture whitewashes the stark reality of contemporary living with utterly disposable drivel. ‘Rival Dealer’ is what pop would sound like if it was interested in mirroring the cultural decay it’s made within

The album ends with two tracks from 2011’s Street Halo, Burial’s fourth EP since the release of Untrue and, one could argue, the beginning of the second and more audibly sonically diverse period of his career. Mirroring Hyperdub’s press release for the collection, Sputnikmusic writer Deviant said that the album’s “main beauty... is marked by its somewhat foreign nature, how at times it seems so familiar and yet so utterly alien at the same time.” It would be a leap to say Burial has made any major diversions in his work, but he has continuously built upon his aesthetic with more samples, more elements, more textures, more ideas, and more anxieties.

Interestingly, the tracks collected on  Tunes, 2011 to 2019 were recorded over the time that the hauntological theory pioneered by Fisher (with Simon Reynolds, Kodwo Eshun and others) was on the wane. Hauntology is a term derived from Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, in which Derrida claimed that following the fall of the Berlin Wall, communism would haunt late capitalism like a ghost. Fisher developed the concept into cultural theory claiming that hauntology is an aesthetic or genre that mourns the lost futures of modernism that failed to materialise (“the slow cancellation of the future,” as Franco Berardi put it). Hauntology recognizes that, in post-digital late capitalism, radical modernism is a ghost, a pervasively experienced absence (of radicalism, of forward momentum), in a contemporary culture trapped in a temporal loop of nostalgia. The theory gradually was applied to a whole cultural mode saturated by mourning, the uncanny, and nostalgia for a future that never came to be, and electronic musicians like Burial as well as The Caretaker, William Basinski and others became connected to it.

But hauntology has been declared dead multiple times. The idea that such a concept or genre could “die” is, on its face, wrong-headed. To kill hauntology would necessitate contemporary culture to free itself from the temporal loop that it’s been trapped in since the beginning of the twenty-first century. And Maroon 5 is currently number four on the Billboard Hot 100. Pop culture remains stagnant. Hauntology persists. “How can you call time on a genre so self-consciously untimely,” wrote Simon Reynolds of the genre’s lasting power in a 2011 article for Wired. “Like (un)real-deal ghosts, the hauntologists stubbornly refuse to depart the scene.”

But there is hope on the horizon, both culturally and even politically in the rises of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. The socialism that Derrida said would haunt late capitalism as a spectre is now materialising as substantive political movements. Will hauntology survive if we actually start believing in a brighter future? I don’t know, but I am positive that Burial’s music will be there with me, offering a portal outside of whatever chaos lies ahead.