Styles: drum 'n' bass, jungle, ambient, dubstep, synth-pop
Others: Helter Skelter, Shlohmo, Zomby, Genesis
On his latest EP, Burial casts a spotlight on the once hushed lines of desperation and remorse that lingered in the backdrop of his small-hour urban soundscapes. The voices and characters who emerged from the woodwork of Untrue had only just begun to assume more commanding roles on the enigmatic UK artist’s most recent offerings, but on Rival Dealer, they take center stage. Confident and freely-spoken snippets of dialogue adopt the role of affiliates and subjects who shape the “anti-bullying message” of the EP, as well as the bulk of responses that Rival Dealer has ignited since its release.
“This is who I am.”
Although the vocal samples are indeed a focal point, they aren’t the most immediate thing to hit. We’re reminded instead about the evolution of dubstep as it enters its second decade and of the musical styles that spawned it. As one of dubstep’s most celebrated practitioners, Burial uses the opening track from this EP to expose a continued admiration for drum ‘n’ bass and jungle. He creates a fast-paced, percussion-heavy surge that recalls the frantic pulse of early-90s Helter Skelter shows and the live recordings that subsequently circulated on cassette tape, albeit in a subtler form. It’s tough to pick a single reference point from early mixes by the likes of Nicky Blackmarket or Ratpack, but “Rival Dealer” is certainly a means of looking back at the foundations of a genre Burial has done so much to proliferate. Combined with that roughness of the material aesthetic ingrained within those recordings, he also uses the familiar pattering of rain, the rattling of spray cans, and the rumbling of thunder to set the scene, alongside uncanny depictions of a cassette tape being slotted into a deck. This is where the artist’s musical history is rooted — it’s who he is.
Nostalgia could be attributed to a number of segments here, all of which would come based on the same speculation that aims to dissect the most domineering component within the EP: the messages within Burial’s vocal cuts and the techniques he employs to drive them forward. But their emotive impact is achieved in such a way that it calls into question the sincerity of their use (see the break at 10:43 on “Come Down To Us”), not to mention the EP’s musical traits (most notably the Jefferson Starship-style drum section on “Hiders”). The atypical explanation that was read out on Mary Anne Hobbs’ BBC Radio 6 Show is no less irregular than the unveiled content of the samples themselves, although the former does provide a more concrete insight into the artist’s intentions.
Upon first listen, I was fascinated by Burial’s exploration of a divergent soundworld through uncharacteristic synth patterns, which embellish the emotional qualities of a broader set of samples — it’s great to hear him treading an alternate path. On “Hiders” and “Come Down To Us,” he shifts any degree of expectation while managing to retain habitual tropes — deeply seated bass drops, percussion breaks drenched in surface crackle, a disjointed structure that was deployed most recently on “Rough Sleeper.” There is also a continual feeling of contrast, instigated where dialogue about sexuality and identity is clashed against a single Lord Finesse insert — “you know my mother fuckin’ style” — and by those coarse and booming drum patterns that are associated with a very masculine, primal energy.
“It’s about sexuality, it’s about showin’ a person who you are… and to me, this is who I’m about.”
Finding Burial outside of his comfort zone was what initially drew me in to Rival Dealer. But the more I listened, the more the music took on an open, indiscreet, and garish form. Whereas samples on previous output hinted at a theme or an identity, on this EP, they are presented at the forefront of each piece, which consequently erodes any sense of delight in the music. The tracks are thought-provoking, sure, but they are also pretty tactless in comparison to anything else Burial has produced. It was on Street Halo and Kindred that vocal sampling began to acquire a more assertive role (in contrast to the UK garage nods on “Archangel,” etc.), especially within the dissolving breaks of “Stolen Dog” and “Kindred,” where the voice is used as a layered, distorted instrument that lends a distinct texture to heady, underlying tones. But the linchpin of each piece on Rival Dealer is a base trigger that’s often so obvious it borders on self-parody.
The vocal cuts are distributed in a documentary format plotted to instigate a gut reaction through moments of plot twist and acute realization, where drama is subtracted from real-life events and displayed as an emotional showcase that’s just bound to have the audience shedding a tear or two. There are constant attempts to heighten the intensity of sensitive sound bites by the way of surrounding music — and even if the effect is quite curious in its design to spark a flitting response, it’s undercut by the fainter aspects of vocal manipulation. The staggered exhalations on “Come Down To Us” set against a backdrop of static and ricochet is far more intense than an R&B rendition that ends in a confidence-filling whisper… “don’t give up.”
The incorporation of fragments from Lana Wachowski’s coming-out speech1, motivational threads (“You are not alone/ There is something out there2/ Sent from above”) and wholesome, festive bells is fascinating. But the dialogue comes embedded within a mood intended to be reflective and inspirational, draped in such “uplifting” melodies that it is actually quite grating. This is with the exception of Wachowki’s speech, however, which comes structurally disconnected from the music and ends in a bed of vinyl crackle — in this case, the words are distinctive in their format (they haven’t been chopped up), intent, and clarity (no abundant time-stretching or pitch-shifting). Although a low-key harmony and yet another spurring whisper are added, the fragment isn’t propelled by a gushing bell section or some other surface-level, Disney channel cheerleader rush that makes many of the accompanying declarations less easy to swallow.
“Excuse me, I’m lost.”
The preliminary excitement to hear Burial operating in unfamiliar aesthetics comes on the second track, “Hiders,” which makes for crass adventures in Auto-Tune before an 80s pop beat kicks in with a piano accompaniment. It’s unlike anything Burial has released before, even when taking the crackle and the thunder into account. Perhaps this is a hat tip to less likely influences preceding d’n’b and jungle, which is certainly refreshing, but when it acts as a springboard for those samples with the intention of evoking a forced visceral reaction, it just seems flat. On defining track “Come Down to Us,” the vocals and the melodic synths continue along a similar path, only this time with a sitar sample, which amplifies that feeling of otherness or at least taps into a contrasting side of the London nightlife Burial is so renowned for exploring.
Aside from that, these phrases and proclamations are carefully placed to create one tear-jerking trigger after another — “Baby, come on,” “Don’t be afraid to step into the unknown,” “Become one,” “Love it,” “You are the star to me — you are the world to me,” “I saw myself cry” — all boosted by deep and swelling melodies. It’s as though a sentimental resonance is desperately being sought through the most evident channels, when Burial has already demonstrated that he can forge a much more powerful connect in earlier releases. It really is a treat to hear him testing the water with a new approach, but the sentimentality he presented in the past had more significance when it wasn’t thrust so blatantly into the foreground.
Even though this is an intriguing addition to the Burial canon, the results are decidedly mixed. The stylistic alterations symbolize a brave move, but Rival Dealer is cheapened by an OC-style sentiment that not only skews the direction of the music, but also lessens the impact of original intent, particularly in Wachowski’s brilliantly executed, heart-warming speech. Rival Dealer might be an intrepid leap for Burial, but the music is ultimately obscured by his intention to share a positive message through the most glaring of means.
1. The speech addresses the importance of anonymity as well as gender, which is of course incredibly relevant for the musician at hand.
2. A sample that also featured on Burial’s 2012 Kindred EP.
01. Rival Dealer
03. Come Down To Us