"I like Underground tunes that are true and mongrel and you see people trying to break that down, alter its nature. Underground music should have its back turned; it needs to be gone, untrackable, unreadable, just a distant light." - Burial
So let's get the hype out of the way. Burial is one of the most acclaimed dubstep producers out of the scene (dubstep being a kind of trip-hop revival with overtones of downtempo drum ‘n’ bass for those of you too busy to follow all the subgenres blistering forth from the UK's hyper-fertile garage and grime scenes), and not just because his balanced and melodic work is perfect for introducing new converts to the dubstep sound. We've got his universally praised self-titled debut ([TMT Review->http://www.tinymixtapes.com/Burial]), released only last year, an accessible and complex demonstration of how dubstep can succeed in the album format — a revolutionary move in a scene dominated by 12-inch singles. We've got a mythical persona, an anonymous artist who has yet to reveal his identity, a man who cultivates an undeniably romantic atmosphere to surround his work through second-hand accounts of his activities on pirate radio shows and clever press clips in which he describes the situational nature of his work, be it composing with the television on in his apartment or making tunes on the roof of his building with his "rubbish, dying computer" bellowing smoke into the night sky. And, of course, we've got the underground press blitz for Untrue, which mirrors the buildup for Burial's first release: a stellar 12-inch unveiled a few months prior to the full-length featuring choice album cuts, an album preview mixed by fellow dubstep pioneer Kode 9, and a subsequent hurricane of blog buzz. Despite all this, answering the question of whether or not Untrue is indeed a killer album hinges on nothing but the sounds between its first and final tracks, a fact that will be easy for some reviewers to lose amongst all the press frenzy pushing to make this the record by which the critical success of dubstep itself will be measured -- and of course the potential backlash for a sophomore album released so soon after such a solid debut.
Thankfully for Burial, Hyperdub, and dubstep as a whole, Untrue is a brilliant piece of work. It succeeds in both its expanded CD form and its compressed, more dance-oriented LP mix, managing to stand firmly on its own merits and independently of all the buzz. So yes, the album works as a self-sustaining collection of tracks, but in context, Untrue feels uncannily like a sequel, an upgraded version of Burial. Playing the two albums back to back is an immeasurably pleasurable experience that emphasizes this fact, but it also highlights that Untrue still utilizes many of the same patterns and drum samples Burial used on his debut, so much so that it's tempting (at least for a hypothetical critic more inclined to reactively shit in the face of the great hype machine than to suckle on its filthy tit) to accuse him of repeating himself. In breaking down such accusations, however, Untrue's singular advances reveal themselves, and a higher appreciation for the album can be achieved.
For instance, while both albums may exist in the same universe of smog and submarine soundstructures, there's undoubtedly a wider range of emotion heard on Untrue. While the self-titled album opened with the stunning rush of auditory sensation that was "Distant Lights" before dropping off into the disorienting and opinion-splitting "Spaceape" — personally, one of my favorite Burial tracks, and his only tune featuring an MC — Untrue establishes that same initial euphoria with "Archangel," a similarly charged tune and an obvious single. The magic of Untrue, however, is that, rather than shifting pace and mood with each song, it keeps that blast of energy alive and distributes it artfully throughout its 50 minutes, bringing the beat to the front, dragging it to the back, and sometimes (at least in the case of the CD version) eliminating it completely in favor of tension-filled synth swells, like on "Endorphin" and "In McDonalds." The final nail in our hypothetically crass critic's coffin is, of course, the album's much-publicized use of melodic R&B vocal samples put through the Burial treatment (a careful mix of pitch-shifting vocoders and delay/echo effects), along with its references to much more varied spheres of electronic music; both lend Untrue just enough of its own sonic edge to defuse any accusations of homogenization.
Of that edge, Burial had the following to say, under Kode 9's gentle inquiries at Hyperdub's Blogspot: "This one is a bit more buzzin', glowy. It's a bit more uplifting. It doesn't hang around. It's a bit more up." Uplifting might be a bit strong, considering Untrue plays like yet another 2007 breakup album (Âµ-Ziq, Grinderman, etc.), but the positive intent is still undeniable, secreted away somewhere between all those vocal samples detailing the telling of lies and the spread of mistrust, primary themes of the album. Additionally, Burial keeps a kind of twilight haze over the album and avoids major chord progressions (except for a few instances, such as on the glorious rising R&B chorus that emerges out of nowhere about three-fourths of the way through "Shell Of Light") along with any other obvious techniques for lifting his sound up from the depths, but he also avoids plumbing the obscure and even difficult depths of sound and emotion that he did on his self-titled. Comparatively, there's a sense that it's going to be okay, a sound like a security blanket, that seeps from this record, even as Burial continually threatens to crush it underneath another torrent of broken beats and sighing strings.
Throughout the record's duration, there seems to be a battle playing out between Untrue's downcast vocal samples and its upbeat 2-Step programming, and it's no surprise to those acquainted with the power of this kind of music that it's the programming standing victorious at the end of it all. Keep in mind, however, that "this kind of music" doesn't just mean the more emotionally resonant end of the electronic music spectrum, it's more about dance music that addresses the darker elements of the human psyche, an idea found in the music of Joy Division and New Order, in Xiu Xiu and Adult., in any number of rock or non-rock based acts. Your experience will be that much more transcendent if you attempt to dance away the bullshit that can drag a soul into desperation and hopelessness. Untrue closes on this note with probably the best track of Burial's career — a straight up 4/4-on-the-dancefloor club banger, appropriately titled "Raver." While the track opens with that familiar "but you lied" vocal sample utilized throughout the album, there's no way to escape the euphoria those surging synths bring down on the house or how the "but you lied" sample gets replaced by a new sample, sung by the same nameless individual, every time the chorus swings around: "You love me."
It's apparent that Untrue was recorded in a comparatively short time, but that doesn't mean the production is any less engaging. Rather, it seems as though the quick release of Untrue restricted Burial from burying his emotions underneath layers of alternatively sparse and overwhelming production as he did on his debut, resulting in an album that instead wears them unabashedly on its sleeve. Whether or not this is more effective will vary depending on the listener, but one has to admire Burial's genius either way -- the way he plays with the idea of how the audience relates to and understands the artist through a projected identity, the way he manages to channel a self-consciously ramshackled and thrown-together vibe into his music; all of these are elements that surely keep this music "underground," as he so clearly wants it to be. But never before has such underground posturing, which seems to stand in direct opposition to Untrue's emotional appeal and sleek R&B leanings, found itself so polished and ready for the masses. For that achievement alone, Untrue deserves all the praise it will undoubtedly be receiving from the international music press in the next few weeks. It also brings up an important question: What if it gets better from here? There's a feeling in Burial's music that he's becoming less conflicted as an artist as he develops his already highly unique voice; so, what if he were to spend the time and energy required to learn some new software, if he were to let his tunes gestate for a bit longer? For all that these last two albums have been glorious works, I get the feeling that Burial's yet to make his definitive artistic statement, the one that will forever cement his place in popular music; I for one won't be fully satisfied until he's made it.