Bevan has revealed to us that the future is ours.
It is the evening of the decade, and just as the clock ticks down on this arbitrary measure of time, the British electronic artist Burial has collected and re-sequenced his work released in the past ten years as Tunes 2011-2019. In a limited sense, there is nothing new here. Almost all of Burial’s works released on Hyperdub from 2011’s Street Halo to this year’s Claustro / State Forest are presented in a slightly warped reverse chronological order. But in re-contextualizing and re-ordering these works, Burial – as is his way – turns what might have been a mere capitulation to market demands into a slowly unfolding sonic revelation – a record of both the promise and despair of our times.
In his book Capitalist Realism, the late cultural and political theorist Mark Fisher put forward the idea that capitalism’s ubiquity – its creeping and conquering presence over the face of the earth – has dulled us into the notion that there is no alternative to it. What this means on a political level is that, its enemies defeated through any means necessary, capitalism can point to the supposed failure of alternative models as proof of its own superiority. On a cultural level, this stance toward the past means that the only products worth producing (and culture, under capitalism, is always understood as just another product) become those that pass the test of the omnipotent Market. Once they’ve proven to be profitable, we are fed the same goods over and over. What veil of newness anyone bothers to hang over them is thin at best.
The future, then, is closed to us. We cannot imagine anything new because we are only given, as possibilities, slightly tweaked versions of the past. That movie you liked? Here is a sequel. That music you listen to? Here is an algorithmic, inhuman playlist engineered to fit your current tastes and never push outside of it. Those wars we waged? They are never-ending. Those banks that stole your house? We just need to tweak the rules they run by. It is hard to say precisely when time stopped moving forward. The fall of the USSR is often pointed to, when supposedly intelligent people declared proudly the “end of history.” But, if this is the case, what is left for those of us living after the end?
In the mid-aughts, Burial emerged with a possible answer. On both his self-titled album, released in 2006, and his genre-defining Untrue, Burial – then anonymous – suggested that the end of history was a real drag. Taking garage, dub and rave into subterranean spaces he created a sonic and psychic landscape that captured the depressed spirit of the times. Making beat-centric music using samples was nothing new, but Burial defied the easy in dance music. His collages never quite gave themselves over entirely to dancefloor elation, instead dwelling in liminal darkness. On the strength of his sound and the allure of his anonymity, a cult formed. Discontented with an unsolved mystery, the press began to pry when Untrue was nominated for the Mercury Prize. In 2008 the global economy collapsed and Burial revealed his identity – in a photo posted to his Myspace page – as William Emmanuel Bevin. “I just want to make some tunes,” he said.
In 2019, one could forgive Bevan for throwing together Tunes 2011-2019 to make a quick buck and get over the hasn’t-released-a-full-length-since-2007 hump. It is difficult to find one feature, interview or write-up that does not allude to Untrue (the present review being guilty, of course). Fair enough, given the merits of that record, but it must be tiring for an artist to keep hearing the insinuation that his most substantial work is behind him. Each single or EP released since has been met with excitement, to be sure, but the mood of anticipation for smaller releases doesn’t quite match that of a capital-A Album. Such is the nature of the Discourse: we prefer the immediate and ephemeral nature of the buffet to the patience required of a tasting course. As it turns out, however, Bevan has been making that Album this whole time.
At the beginning of the millennium, Bevan (anonymously) began corresponding and sharing music with Steve Goodman – founder and head of Hyperdub, the label on which Burial has released nearly all his music. Burial – along with artists like Goodman (as Kode9) and Leyland Kirby (as The Caretaker) – ground the past to a pulp and in the process erected sonic architectures that evoked, as Mark Fisher might put it, a nostalgia for a lost future. A hallmark of Burial’s sound is the pop and hiss of vinyl, which evokes the past. Layered over future-synths and deep bass, the incongruity produces an imaginary no-time, a future-past of Bevan’s own making. Fisher’s writing on Burial is not the only thing that connects them. In the late ’90s Goodman was involved with the Cybernetic Cultural Research Unit at University of Warwick alongside Fisher. The CCRU was an experimental cohort of researchers in what might broadly be called “cultural studies.” Their interests ranged from science-fiction to occultism, from Deleuze to dance music. Of special interest, however, is Fisher’s notion, developed in his time in the CCRU, of theory-fiction.
Theory-fiction is not a strictly defined concept, but rather concerns the dissolution of boundaries between the real and the imagined. It is a recognition that the concepts we develop in order to understand the world are as fictional as Rick Deckard and that our fictions seep into our everyday reality. Boundaries dissolve. Theory-fiction is tied intimately to Fisher’s capitalist realism because the first step to undoing a seemingly inevitable and foregone reality is recognizing how fragile the very notion of the real is. In a rare interview, Burial sat down with Fisher to discuss his work. Fisher pointed out that Burial’s “music [seemed] to be about the after effects of Rave, about never actually experiencing it.” Bevan’s response was that he had “never been to a festival. Never been to a rave in a field. Never been to a big warehouse, never been to an illegal party, just clubs and playing tunes indoors or whatever. I heard about it, dreamed about it.” This suggests a sonic theory-fiction, a meta-music that is less about bringing you to the club floor than about what it means to hear music made to bring you to the club floor. What it is like to dream about it.
The key to the excellence of Tunes 2011-2019 is in the sequencing. What makes it the most substantial project of Burial’s career is the arc he develops over the record’s two-hour-and-30-minute runtime. Bookended by the weightless “State Forest” and the clock-winding-down trip of “NYC,” the album not only showcases Burial’s ability to seamlessly flow between bass heavy, beat-oriented tunes and abstract atmospheres, but also amounts to a decade-in-the-making night out at the club, the one in Bevan’s dreams. Ultimately, this arc reveals the sonic cohesion of these songs that exists despite their staggered release.
Tunes opens with a trio of ambient tracks – the aforementioned “State Forest,” along with “Beachfires” and “Subtemple.” Writing on “State Forest” earlier this year, I pointed to it as an exemplar of “Burial-as-ghost.” It not a song at all, but rather the idea of a song. Haunting chords emerge and then fade away. Chimes clatter occasionally. What music there is sounds as though it comes from underwater or from far away. Soft, mechanical clicks and dripping water set high in the mix magnify this sense of distance and scale before silence takes over. “Beachfires” and “Subtemple” are equally ghostly. The first sounds like a direct continuation of “State Forest,” reproducing many of the same motifs while reorganizing them. “Subtemple” strips the music back even further. Static and hum dominate, as do the same mechanical noises of the first two tracks. A sampled voice or a few synth notes break through, but sound incidental in their isolation.
It is fascinating that these tracks make up some of Burial’s most recent output. This turn toward abstraction has not been universally well-received. So it is a bold move on Bevan’s part to begin the record with nearly 30 minutes of his ghost-music. But it is essential to the design of Tunes that he do so. One way to understand Burial’s music is as the invocation of ghosts. In a world without a future where the past is always present, we are surrounded by ghosts. By warping the past, Burial reproduces, sonically, this theoretical notion. The music never quite arrives because there is no future for it to arrive into. Mark Fisher would describe this as hauntology.
A portmanteau of “ontology” and “haunt,” the concept of hauntology comes from the French linguistic theorist Jacques Derrida. In his book Spectres of Marx, he writes that “haunting is historical . . . but it is not dated.” Ghosts are a manipulation of time. This is, for Derrida – and for Burial – “the question of the event as question of the ghost.” To begin to undo the end of history, Burial invokes the ghosts not to chase them away, but, in Derrida’s words, “to grant them the right, if it means making them come back alive, as revenants who would no longer be revenants, but as other arrivants to whom a hospitable memory or promise must offer welcome.” To bring the language back down to earth, Burial’s music is hauntological – at last – because by invoking the ghosts of the past he brings it back to life. And it is only in living – in reanimating reality – that the future might once again be opened and we ourselves welcomed into it.
Thus, on Tunes, Burial must pass through the realm of ghosts before he can take the listener to his imagined dancefloor. “Young Death” (a title freighted with meaning in the context of this quest to reorganize the past in order to bring the future back to life) takes the listener, finally, into rhythmic territory. Over a sublimated beat, a voice croons “I will always be there for you/ Don’t cry/ Don’t fear.” Dance-floor beats remain elusive through “Nightmarket,” “Hiders” and “Come Down To Us.” These tracks continually threaten to break free, but four-on-the-floor passages give way – just as quickly as they emerged – to empty static. The heavy, dragging beat of “Come Down to Us” stretches over most of the track’s 13 minutes, but disappears entirely at the end, giving way to the voice of filmmaker Lana Wachowski. Discussing her realization that she is transgender, and the realization that this did not make her unworthy of love, the sample ends with a kind of prophecy. Wachowski says that “this world that we imagine in this room might be used to gain access to other rooms, to other worlds previously unimaginable.”
On Tunes, this declaration is followed by the eruption that is “Claustro.” A composition made up of pure desire and elation. The most straightforward dance track on the record, it marks a transition to like-minded songs, beginning with the dance-floor grenade “Rival Dealer.” But even in the sweatiest, most abandoned part of this club night, Bevan attends to absence. “Kindred” almost fades into oblivion before coming alive again at the eight-and-a-half minute mark. The extended coda of “Loner” begins with a looping snare before giving itself over to the same ambiance that dominates the first part of the album. “Ashtray Wasp” maintains an astonishing consistency before switching up the beat under the cover of static and introducing a roiling darkness. The dynamic “Rough Sleeper” serves to both cap-off the beat-heavy heart of the record and kick-off the comedown.
And maybe you are tempted to leave the shadows of the club during “Truant,” the evolution of which confounds human movement, never settling into a groove. But the deep throb of “Street Halo” calls you back to the floor for one last burst of energy, reminding you that Burial can make music that is technically dubstep, and so stay just a little longer than you planned before emerging in the pre-dawn light where dancers huddle into trains and cabs and buses, returning home to the sound of “Stolen Dog,” a contemplative, low-tempo track with just enough propulsion to get everyone home before the sun is above the horizon. The halogens are still on, though their circle of influence is diminished. The streets are eerie in their emptiness. You fumble with your keys – maybe you are alone, but let us imagine you are not – you stumble up the stairs as “NYC” trips along and that clock ticks down. You lock the door and pull the blinds before the light breaks through. Outside (or is it in the song?) you hear sirens in the distance. Then you remember it’s all a dream, so you start the record over.
Burial’s unwillingness to release a full-length album since 2007 may reflect a recognition of the way the world has changed irreparably since the tear in reality that was the 2008 financial crisis. Even if one considers only the comparatively small-scale changes in music distribution, the world in which we live and consume has rapidly evolved. So what does it mean that he has assembled and distributed Tunes?
Part of living in capitalist realism is being told that everything will be fine. That our hard work will pay off. That, if we accept and follow the rules there will be a bright future for us. This is a lie, of course. And the longer we buy into it the more we hurt those with less than ourselves. In the face of what seems like a hopeless world, Burial offers a strange, ghostly hope. His music is the defining soundtrack of our time, emerging just before the global financial crash and culminating, with Tunes, at a pivotal moment, when it turns out the future may not be foregone after all. Taking pop as the grist for his mill, he has performed capitalist realism’s move inversely. He delivers us sounds we’ve heard before, yes, but the coup of Tunes is that he has finally performed this operation on his own work. He has made the old new again. He has reanimated the ghosts. In doing so, he has revealed to us that the future is ours – that there will be dancing, even – but that we must claim it for ourselves by beginning to imagine the unimaginable, again, at last.