August 20, 2011
‘Untrue’ – Burial’s Disconnected Voices
In 2005, a film called ‘White Noise’ was released starring Michael Keaton as an architect who finds a way of communicating with his deceased wife through the static of a TV set. For much of the film Keaton is desperately trying to capture and remove the static from his wife’s words – making clear what was muddied and indistinct. It was a pretty terrible film and far from Keaton’s finest hour. However, it conveniently serves as a hypothetical antithesis for the sounds heard on an album released less than a year later: the self-titled debut from a shadowy and mysterious London producer by the name of Burial that lingered confidently on the fringes of dubstep, garage and ambient music.
The voices heard on ‘Burial’ and its more refined successor ‘Untrue’ (released a year later in 2007) are distant and haunting: cutup R&B samples arriving into the mix through layers of filters and reverb, their pitch shifted and their words often unintelligible. Whereas in ‘White Noise’ Keaton sought clarity in the voice he was hearing, here that was of no importance. It’s a production style pioneered and mastered by Burial – real name William Bevan – one that shows a deep understanding of bass music’s consistent use of the human voice as a texture, often disembodied from its performer and with its usual top-billing in the mix removed.
‘Etched Headplate’ from ‘Untrue’
Rumbling underneath the anonymous voices on ‘Untrue’ are those characteristically Hyperdub drums – the shuffled 2-step patterns that are at once insistent and as disconnected as the vocals, fighting their way through the muffling cotton wool of low-pass filters and reverb. Occasionally they rise through the fog to dominate in short bursts, as on ‘Archangel’ or ‘Ghost Hardware’, but perhaps aid the album’s ambience most when not featuring at all. One such instance of this, the achingly gorgeous ‘Endorphin’, is to me the apex of ‘Untrue’s’ audio philosophy. The arrangement is fluid and unhurried, built around a wordless and floating vocal sample and expertly layered synths – further ambient crackles and clicks adding to a perfect instance of top quality craftsmanship. A rare audible spoken word clip making reference to “all these flashing blue lights” speaks of the euphoria of being in a club in a chemically-altered state – something alluded to in the track’s title also – is suitably juxtaposed over one of the album’s most serene and withdrawn moments, fully underlining Bevan’s position on the fringes of the various musical styles on which his music touches.
‘Endorphin’ from ‘Untrue’.
Whether intentionally or not, it could be argued that the Burial cannon owes a debt to Brian Eno’s early ‘80s work, most notably the space and feel of 1983’s ‘Apollo Atmospheres and Soundtracks’ – the former Roxy Music man exploring much of the same sonic territory as Bevan during this period. The comparison is reductive however, as Eno’s ambience was mathematical; calculated wallpaper to decorate images of NASA’s latest exploits into the dark void, whereas both ‘Burial’ and ‘Untrue’ take the ambience on which they’re constructed as just one element of an innovating fusion. [The fact that Bevan claims to produce his music solely on the linear Sound Forge programme is serendipitous to say the least.]
Yet in the world of vocal-as-texture production, Bevan certainly has predecessors. DJ Shadow’s ‘Endtroducing…’, an astounding 15 years-old this November, slips wordless voices into atmospheric tracks such as ‘Building Steam from a Grain of Sand’ and ‘Midnight in a Perfect World’ as if they were extra piano samples or guitar lines, and always to evocative and mysterious effect. At the turn of the millennium, Radiohead enraged and awed fans in equal measure with the release of ‘Kid A’: a stunning collection that flirted with the remote end of the human voice texture on tracks such as ‘Everything in its Right Place’ and ‘Kid A’, and even displayed prototype Burial synth ideas such as the minimal ‘Treefingers’. Fellow Hyperdub producer Zomby’s self-proclaimed tribute to Bevan’s work, ‘Natalia’s Song’ from his recent ‘Dedication’ album, pays its respects first-and-foremost with a chopped and distant vocal – a sample from a Russian X-Factor winner no less – one that drifts faceless across the song from a faraway and distant land. In this respect, Zomby shows a clear understanding and appreciation of Bevan’s work without stepping on its toes.
Radiohead’s ‘Everything in its Right Place’ from ‘Kid A’.
The Burial sonic manifesto is built on this concept, but runs with it much further than his forebears and contemporaries. In a (rare) interview with Wire around the release of ‘Untrue’, Bevan cited as an inspiration the idea of hearing voices seeping through walls or up staircases, and still sensing the tone and mood within them despite their distant proximity. The muffled vocals of R&B and 2-step Sirens that saturate ‘Untrue’ are the embodiment (or disembodiment) of this concept, taking a whole new form as they are filtered through the walls of clubs and into surrounding corridors or the streets at night.
Scores of producers – from post-dubsteppers such as Mount Kimbie to blog-hyped hipsters like Keep Shelly In Athens – use these disconnected voices in their work, often focusing on them as a central theme (see Chicago native How To Dress Well). But it’s Burial, and particularly ‘Untrue’, that serves as the true benchmark of the style.