Music Reviews

Burial Kindred

(Hyperdub) Rating - 9/10

On the edge of our beige universe, there exist suns 600 billion times bigger than ours, suns that make even VY Canis Majoris, the biggest sun-star we know, look like a marble, a mere speck, the size of the period at the end of this sentence. If there were a disturbance in the magnetic force-field surrounding one of these mega-suns, forcing said sun to be sent through a wormhole, headed directly into our direction, we'd all be incinerated before we could say “Carl Sagan.” The evidence of our human existence would become a tabula rasa, a lost vade mecum; the joys, hardships and years of written and oral history would mean nothing because it would be nothing. And to the universe, what's nothing is actually part of a larger, unmeasurable something.

But what is emotion to the universe? No one really knows. Just the theoretical existence of wormholes can invite brain freeze. We do know one thing: emotions inhabit architecture, even if the materials that demarcate space are made with inorganic matter – concrete, steel, alloy. The same goes for music created with computers, sequencers, mixers, and what have you – quantizing your beats can be great for the dance floor, but it ultimately is attached to the symbols of the era of it's birth, the 1980's, symbols of sanitary able-bodiedness (think men in business suits, think crammed offices) mixed with the scientific and albeit hallucinatory escapisms of science fiction. I've been reading the tome called A Pattern Language, a standard for architects and archi-intellectuals, and noticed the phrase (on a page I've forgotten) “parks are dead and artificial.” It struck me, I wrote it down. And now that I think of it again, parks really are artificial, but the emotions they are giving landscape to aren't. Their symbols, like the symbols of the 80's, aren't either.

In big cities like London and NYC, we replace animals for emotions, trees for people, houses for apartments. We are the micro in the machine of the macro. No matter where we go, the sense of the experience of Others is our constant afterimage, marked by spit stains on the sidewalks, trash cloistering near the gutter, and certain smells (like cigarette smoke, or weed) lingering in the air. Even in intimate, private places – a stairwell in an apartment, a room, a backyard – we can sense the bloodlines that have stood in our exact same position, the people that have chosen to inhabit the spaces before us; those are the faces and the bodies and the voices that we will never see but can only in certain times ponder about, or reillustrate, or design. How the wind finds its way to blow through the streets to clean them up, I'll never know – we'll never know.

Which brings me to Burial, Burial's London, and Kindred. Distorting and often eliminating harmony and melody from his music, disrupting and dislocating lyrics, Burial (call him William Bevan, or don't) is one of the first artists to have the consciousness that love has become obsolete in R&B music, and that R&B must become demythologized through re-appropriation rather than musical metamorphosis. Language and communication have become broken and outdated; singing the blues won't get you anywhere on the street corner. Being micro in the macro isn't his idea of happiness, but it is where the starting point of happiness could grow if given the chance. By the simple apparatus of artifice, the materiality (and bodilessness) of Burial's voices glow, and in their utterances they sing of the illumination from what I call the Urban Spiritual – the format for Burial's work that in its mechanicalness, transcends “the grid” (what many musicians consider what a software sequencer looks like) into a verdant, emotional landscape, a landscape of behavior, wildlife, and wildness.

It is said that Gershwin coined the term “jungle music”, which for him was a description of black music coming out of Harlem in the 1920s. What jungle means to Burial is something completely different, a British, electronic music made in the 1990s (a time I speculate when Bevan was either an adolescent or early twenty-year-old) that has dissolved and mutated into other sounds and other genres with other names. So when he brings back those beats of long ago, installing them into our moment – say, the first six minutes of “Kindred” – we understand how his music is influenced by ghosts; in an interview with the Wire, Bevan expressed sadness about London club culture being commercialized in the late 90's. Despite this, his relationship with jungle reflects his thoughts on musical detritus. By reanimating those tunes and beats of that era, he removes them from their context and replaces their landscape for another, our landscape, the generation of not only Londoners, but New Yorkers (like me), and every other nationality. Though he (and some of his fans) may not believe it, Burial's music is an emotionally compelling form of world music, belonging in the ranks of musicians that have popularized their cultures such as Fela Kuti, Hector Lavoe, and Omar Souleyman. Take Burial out of London, make him a Berliner, a Canadian, a South African, a Singaporean, or what have you, and his strange but shareable view of his world could have never been so potent as it is. The spirituality would be lost forever.

Kindred is “the world becoming real” the Urban Spiritual of facelessness, tunes that belong to the consciousness of urban dwellers – flowing through their souls and allowing them the chance of escaping their surroundings, if not for just one second, one millisecond, one nanosecond. Cities are there own sites of overtone series and noise oscillators, and in order to feel “slightly removed from the tangible world,” we must translate their inner myths into the sublanguage of music, into the subnature of ambience, to allow the possibility of association without painting it obvious. This is why Burial's voices have more power as utterances – or to use Christian Bok's term, as “phonetic valences” – then as words with semantic meanings. The potentiality of their emotional habitats is such a rich spiritual sublanguage, that sometimes I wonder if antiphons and Gregorian chant are what really influences Bevan. Regardless, the Urban Spiritual differs from Christian songs and hymns because it doesn't gaze upwards, or beholds the mysteries of the ancient past. It looks down below, in the streets, and further below, into the underground – it regards the past as what has come to be installed into the present. Only there can we, the urban spiritualists, exist outside the ritual of our bodies and make them represent something beyond our cosmic drama.

And this cosmic drama has its interstices and crevices, just like Kindred's three tracks. The most noticeable difference from his previous work is that the three are symphonic, they have parts, and those parts are distinct, either marked by a certain loop, bass ostinato, drone, or tempo. Unlike in past releases, Burial wants us to know when the song shifts, and he wants to experiment with different techniques of shifting. The grid of his computer screen is less rigid, and consequently, there is less access into the song's core because there are multiple cores, each a little world onto itself, a degree zero, an island. Their forms have no clear destination, so much that what may feel like the beginning of an ascent was never an open route to begin with, or that rather it was a descent. Because of that the songs need their areas surveyed with detail and with time, which can be frustrating. But this is when our trust for Burial gathers momentum. A momentum that could be political, given your imagination. Mine tells me that these new songs are the political representation of something that's changed in London (Occupy London?) or something that needs to change. For example, there's a certain anxiety to the first minutes of Ashtray Wasp, how it spirals into a tangled mess of crackles, only to be whipped up again in a soft click and the voice of a girl-next-door. Is this Burial's expression that London (and England) have issues that can be solved? It is certainly one way to look at it. But certainly not the only one.

If art, as Foucault says, is only related to objects and not to individuals, or to life, music has the special position of countering his claim. There was a video I once saw of Thom Yorke interviewing LA-native Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus. What's interesting is how FlyLo admitted that he didn't like Burial's Untrue until he visited London. Put this into Foucault's discourse and you'll understand that FlyLo didn't like the album because he couldn't see or imagine the objects that proliferate it, and likewise Kindred: the weather, the landscape, the street corner, the architecture, the language, the political climate. Like a Hemingway iceberg, Burial leave half of what's associative hidden. The rest belongs to manufacturing spirituality out of concrete. To understand that is to not only connect with Kindred, but to belong to its rupture – a rupture that does what all great art should do: create a landscape that wasn't there before, a landscape that invites so much to explore that it is an exploration onto itself.