When Burial (aka, William Bevan) released his masterpiece Untrue in 2007, it felt like a watershed moment. The album was universally acclaimed, wound up near the top of several “Best of the Year” lists, and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. This was at a time when dubstep was still a fairly young genre — artists like Skrillex and Nero hadn’t broken through yet. Untrue was a moody album, nocturnal in tone and isolating in its themes. While it was certainly influenced by UK rave culture, it was hardly dance-able. It’s unfortunate that when artists like Skrillex broke through, dubstep became somewhat synonymous with loud and abrasive. This isn’t an insult against Skrillex — far from it. He simply makes different music than Burial does, even if they fall under the same umbrella. Skrillex is fun and active, Burial is decidedly not. One review I read of Untrue described it as “the soundtrack to three o’clock in the morning”. Perfect. Even as Burial’s soundscapes and techniques have grown and diversified, the unifying themes connecting all of his music were isolation, longing, and regret, to name a few. Not the most positive music in the world.
So imagine my surprise when I hit play on the Rival Dealer EP and heard music that sounded. . .happy.
Untrue is the last proper album Burial has released. Since then, he’s focused on releasing smaller EPs. The duration might be shorter but the quality is nothing less than exquisite. Early 2012’s Kindred EP and last winter’s Truant EP found the artist pushing his songs past the ten minute mark, creating tracks that almost function as mini-albums. Neither “Truant” or “Rough Sleeper” remains the same for their ten minute plus durations. They morph and shift, taking the listener from one movement to the next like a symphony. But they still sound like Burial. The tape scratches and hisses are still there, the barely audible vocal samples are still there, the overall mood remains the same. While Rival Dealer certainly sounds like Burial, it marks a decided shift forward. Burial’s sound has always been evolving since his very first releases, but this is William Bevan crashing past what has come before. This is an EP that signals a sea change in Burial’s message and tone. It’s also the first time Bevan has approached anything that could possibly described as “personal” in his music.
Part of the intrigue behind Burial’s first two albums was that they were released anonymously. The person behind Burial was unknown so that the music could stand for itself, without the person behind it influencing what people expected or thought. Unfortunately, when Untrue became a global critical success, this decision threatened to overwhelm what Bevan originally wanted to stand on its own: The music. After months of rampant speculation (Everyone from Richard D. James to Norman Cook was tossed into the mix) Bevan came out in a fairly quiet way — a picture of himself on Myspace and a blog entry stating, “I’m a lowkey person and I just want to make some tunes”. Though his identity was no longer a secret, Bevan still stayed out of the public eye. The speculation of his true identity no longer threatened to overwhelm his music but we were never any closer to learning about the man behind it all. His music was strong and stood own its own — the man behind it was just a semi-reclusive genius who was churning out some exceptionally good tunes every year.
No more. Rival Dealer gets personal, and the change in tone reflects this. One of the main inspirations Bevan has cited is the UK rave culture he never got to be a part of, and you can hear that influence come through on past tracks like “Raver“ and “Street Halo“. On Rival Dealer, it’s no longer an influence — it’s a trademark. The opening few minutes of the title track are the most explicit reference Burial has made to the rave influence, but it still maintains the mood of a typical Burial track. There’s still something vaguely sinister about the beats. A voice repeatedly speaks in the background, “I’m gonna love you more than anyone”. But in the middle of this frantic opening, a voice, crystal clear, speaks: “It’s about sexuality — it’s about showing a person who you are — to me, this is who I’m about”. From there, Rival Dealer takes on a decidedly different tone. Vocal samples flicker in and out in the background: “This is who I am”, “Who are you?”. For an artist who maintained a mask of anonymity for so long and whose trademark is the distorted and muffled vocal samples he uses, these statements are a sign that Burial is up to something different. “Hiders”, the only cut on the EP shorter than five minutes, is the most upbeat, happy song Burial has yet to produce. Period. A thawing of the chillier, nocturnal aspects of his music, “Hiders” is a colorful, compact expression of positivity. It begins with another clear vocal sample: “Somewhere, there’s a kid out there. . .”. But it trails off as the music swings upward and the samples follow, too – “You hold the sunrise”, “You don’t have to be alone”. The track ends on a quieter note, with a voice saying “Come down to us”, leading us into the album’s centerpiece.
“Come Down To Us” begins quietly. A timid voice says, “Excuse me, I’m lost”. The music starts up, slowly, melancholy but still positive. It’s almost comforting, an adjective most would have never used to describe Burial’s earlier works. Another vocal sample pipes up: “Don’t be afraid to step into the unknown”. At this point in the EP, it’s clear that Burial is no longer producing really good tunes. This is a personal statement in the form of an electronic music EP. “This is the moment you see who you are”. This track is the self acceptance, the self worth that comes with the acknowledgement of who a person really is. “You are not alone”. Coupled with “Rival Dealer” earlier statement about sexuality, you can speculate that Bevan is addressing something along that spectrum. In fact, it’s made almost crystal clear when “Come Down To Us” and the entire EP ends with an audio sample of Lana Wachowski’s speech when receiving the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award. She discusses the loneliness she felt as a transgender person and the acceptance she learned to find. After nearly twenty-six minutes of vocals addressing identity and self-worth, this is what Bevan decides to close his album with.
Bevan released a statement about the EP saying, “I wanted the tunes to be anti-bullying tunes that could maybe help someone to believe in themselves, to not be afraid, and to not give up, and to know that someone out there cares and is looking out for them”. In the end, it’s remarkable that an artist whose early career was based around anonymity and the refusal to disclose personal information has released a compilation of songs that are personal, that the chilliness and isolation that ran through his entire discography suddenly thawed into something warm and comforting. We can speculate about what these songs might be saying about Bevan’s own sexuality, but that misses the point. Focusing on Bevan’s sexuality or gender identity threatens to repeat the furor that Burial’s identity caused with the release of Untrue. Bevan’s sexuality is secondary — this is about the music. This is about an artist nearing the top of his powers releasing something that forces us to change what we know about the act called Burial. Bevan has never stagnated, always tweaking and evolving his sound, so even if Rival Dealer had kept the same nocturnal tones and themes of longing that permeate the rest of the rest of his catalog, the music would have been the next step in his evolution. That he took such a decided and forceful step in one direction is admirable, especially for an artist notorious for his privacy. This is why Burial continues to be one of the strongest and most fascinating acts in music.-Nick McIntyre
[author image=”http://awardswatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/nickmcintyre_rsz.jpg” ]Nick McIntyre is from Charlotte, NC but currently lives in New Hampshire. Graduating from the UNC School of the Arts with a BFA in Production Design, he is a fan of all things avant garde and experimental, and can usually be found ranting about something trivial on the AwardsWatch forums.[/author]