Review Summary: Dubstep gets it due with this critically adored, minimalist meisterwork.
Ya know, back as far as 2001, I was making vague predictions to people as to the future of UK garage. At the time, the word 'chav' had not yet been invented, and the genre hadn't yet become forever associated with burberry, cheap cigarettes, cheaper cider, and gangs of pasty white kids hanging around on street corners. So Solid Crew probably played a great part in inventing that subculture, but when they first arrived, that wasn't on the horizon - it simply seemed like a new genre of music had arrived in the mainstream, and although the critical reaction to them was violent and swift, I thought if they (or anyone else) sorted out the amateurish rapping and started being more inventive with the production, the tide would turn. I said this at the time, pointing to a Megaman solo album as the most likely breakthrough. Then, everything dropped off the map. The tunes that the kids at the back of the bus were playing off their phones were songs that had been recorded before MP3 phones were even invented - "Oi" by More Fire Crew, "Bound 4 Da Reload" by Oxide & Neutrino, *** like that. Either that, or they'd moved on to Pendulum. Yeah, people pointed to Dizzee Rascal and Wiley as the evolution of the genre, but in truth, grime really doesn't have that much in common with UK garage, and it's easy to imagine that it would have evolved from the likes of Blak Twang and Roots Manuva anyway. For all intents and purposes, it looked like the genre was dead.
And then, lo and behold - The Wire made Burial
their Album of the Year in 2006, moving the more obvious, more famous contendors of Scott Walker's The Drift
and Joanna Newsom's Ys
into second and third place. Admittedly, I thought Burial were a death metal band when I read that list (and it turns out that yes, there IS a death metal band also named Burial), so when I investigated a bit further, I was shocked to see phrases like 'UK garage', '2-step', and 'techstep' being thrown around in a positive light by reviewers. Hey, I was right all along! UK garage is having its critical day in the sun!
Except this isn't the same UK garage the chavs love. For a start, Burial has indeed sorted the amateurish rapping....by dispensing with it altogether. All the vocals here are short, cut-up samples used in exactly the same way as sirens, raindrops, and airhorns - they're just another sound effect. And yes, the production is much, much more inventive. It's dark, almost sickeningly bass-heavy, and echo-heavy. In fact, it's so inventive, so different from what went before, that they're not even calling it UK garage anymore. Like Banksy - another anonymous, acclaimed artist hiding behind a vague moniker - Burial has carved something new, and acceptable to both the underground scene that spawned it and the highbrow critics. This ain't UK garage anymore - this right here is dubstep.
If you're aware of both 2-step and dub as genres, I need give you no explanation of what dubstep is - it's exactly how it sounds. Where as dub takes reggae and twists it into new shapes by adding generous dollops of echo, reverb, and distortion, and dropping instruments out or bringing them back in at unexpected points, often just leaving the rhythm track to do all the work, dubstep does exactly the same for 2-step (for all intents and purposes, 2-step and UK garage are the same thing). The rhythms remain the same - imagine house music in 2/2 rather than 4/4, with busy hi-hat work and a more syncopated snare - but what goes over the top of it is entirely different, moving the music into entirely fresh territory. It even moves the rhythms into new territory - while there's very little difference in what the drums are actually doing when compared to more typical UK garage, the way they're produced here, and the music that surrounds them, makes them sound jittery and uncertain.
Even at a relatively average 51 minutes, Burial
almost feels like it'll never end at times. As an album, it's claustrophobic, nervous, and at times, scary. At times, it's also gorgeous - "Forgive" is almost heartbreakingly beautiful. It's also painfully minimal - at times, the only audible sound is raindrops, or heavy breathing, or the drunms, and most of these tracks are conjured out of only four or five basic elements. Truth be told, this album spiritually lands itself in the very British tradition of early-morning, post-club albums - think early Groove Armada, any British trip-hop, Zero 7, or anything described as 'chill-out', or 'downtempo', or 'ambient dance'. It's music for when you're tired, slightly emotional, on a comedown from whatever drugs you've been doing - and in all seriousness, Burial
is probably better than any album by any of those artists for that exact moment. It's an album that sounds about 5 times better really late at night, and roughly 10 times better when you're playing it really loudly in the dark.
Yeah, maybe this does sound like the most boring thing in the world - something a few other reviews of this have claimed. If you're coming into this album expecting something to dance to, or something that'll liven up a party, or even if you're looking for 'songs' in the traditional sense, then yeah, you'll probably be disappointed, and a little bored. But that'd be missing the point. If you're prepared to give yourself over to this album, allow it to wash over you, then you'll find that it's an experience that's probably quite unlike anything you've ever had. The most instant comparison point is Massive's Mezzanine
(especially on the spoken word "Spaceape", which handily features somebody called Spaceape), an album that offers a similar sonic palette, but with different roots. The difference is that Mezzanine
had the likes of "Teardrop" and "Angel" - at their heart, those were just great pop songs in very dark clothing. There's nothing here that could be mistaken for an accessible pop song. It'll take work to get into for a lot of listeners, sure, but it's worth it. The Wire were only slightly wrong - this may not have been the best album of 2006, but it was definitely top 10.