One of the critical recordings of the 2000s, regardless of genre.
The ever-undulating UK electronic scene, dubbed “the hardcore continuum” by critic Simon Reynolds, produces genres and makes them obsolete in roughly the same length of time as the lifespan of a mayfly. Dubstep, the grimy, Croydon-born brand of subaqueous dance-dirge, was perhaps the most promising of these many iterations of bass music since the heyday of jungle in the early ‘90s. Both genres eschewed rave escapism for a belligerently political style, capturing the churning melting pot of working-class England and the haphazard, tense manner in which each element interacted. And like most of the electronic scene, dubstep was best served via singles, with deeply etched plates letting each side breathe as it dove into the abyss.
After genre pioneers Kode9 and Skream released solid but somewhat underwhelming LPs in 2006, dubstep’s first full-length masterpiece came from one William Bevan, a South London jungle and garage fan operating under the name Burial. In retrospect, the immediate acclaim that greeted the album as a mature development of the genre is amusing, as perhaps the only outright dubstep track that Burial ever produced is not even on it, instead headlining his previous year’s debut EP, South London Boroughs, the title track of which contains all the eerie, angry wub that characterized the work of peers at the time. But Burial was arguably the first piece of music to prove how far dubstep could reach, even as it suggested that its maker would soon leave behind the confines of genre forever.
Though its tracks are distinctive works, the album is sometimes best felt as a whole composition, linked by the quirky aspects of Bevan’s production. Famously, he used Sound Forge, a primitive audio editor with no sequencing or tracking capabilities, resulting in rhythm tracks that do not exactly align with each other, with drum parts tweaked as much by eye as ear, with Burial adjusting the sound levels on the software readout until things looked properly skeletal. On top of these instruments, Burial piles a combination of chopped and screwed vocal samples and clips of ominous sounds: fire, pirate radio beeps, vinyl hiss, the clack of a metal lighter being flicked open, the clatter of empty pistol casings striking pavement and the click of a gun being reloaded. Even by the confrontational standards of classic dubstep, this mixture is thoroughly unsettling, a sonic sojourn through a London on the brink of collapse, with beats so submerged that multiple critics drew a connection to Hurricane Katrina upon the album’s release.
As unnerving as this overall sound is, however, the record also announced Burial as an unexpectedly mournful artist. After an introduction that takes a sample from the film 21 Grams, the album properly starts with “Distant Lights,” which opens with a pirate-radio signal before layering in hissing hi-hats and sending the bass plunging beneath the earth. That’s all nasty and well, but it’s in the vocal line, a pitch-shifted snippet from the Destiny’s Child song “Emotion,” that the elegiac side of Burial immediately takes root. “Now that I need you” repeats the culled refrain, and the line is warped in all directions and left to echo in negative space, maximizing its sense of longing. “U Hurt Me” rides a desert guitar howl over the titular phrase, which is crooned but drained of all feeling until totally numb. “Broken Home” lives up to its title with a completely fragmented composition, mandible-claw beats foregrounded over the occasional jittering descent of a synth line and a regretful line from Sizzla’s “Just One of Those Days.” These spare, dub-influenced tracks clearly derive from the contemporary scene, but in their wracked pain is anticipation of the producer’s growth into a maker of avant-soul with his subsequent release, Untrue.
Burial boasts a shocking level of sophistication for a young, untested producer working with obsolete and ill-suited software. “Night Bus” is a brief, weightless evocation of trying to get home after a night at the club, the uppers slowly wearing off as the monotony of waiting for the next bus brings you down. It is an excessively moving piece of ambient music, with the soft patter of rain enhancing its frigid sense of stasis. “Pirates” could be a tribute to underground radio, but in its distant, well-spaced arrangement and the watery sound, it could just as well anticipate the unruly leaders of a drowned London, pirate radio made conceptually literal. There are even a few tracks you can honestly dance to, like the loping shuffle of “Wounder,” with its circular bassline, and the skittering “Southern Comfort,” which is good for some drunken and tired moving of feet.
Overshadowed in the wake of its instantly canonical successor and now a distant memory for the artist who has explored mini-suite EPs of singular bass music to great effect, Burial is nonetheless more than a time capsule for both its maker and the genre for which it set an extremely high bar. It is as much a street map for its producer’s environs as the aerial view of South London that adorns the cover. Few debut albums have as much to offer as this: an instantly codified vision, a unique and multivalent style, a rich emotional core. It remains one of the critical recordings of the 2000s, regardless of genre, if indeed music like this could be slotted into any label at all.