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Dark, moody album with four or five superb tracks.
on November 24, 2007
Many reviewers have compared Burial to Massive Attack, but that comparison is inaccurate. A much closer reference point is the work of an obscure and prolific musician known as Muslimgauze, real name Bryn Jones. I suspect that Burial, whoever he is, might have more than one Muslimgauze record in his collection.
The similarity is in the way the keyboard textures combine into an evocative, mournful-sounding blur in the background, and occasionally float into focus. "Distant Lights" is highly similar to the sound of early Muslimgauze albums like Flajelata, or a few later ones like Betrayal. The oscillating, slightly dissonant keyboard line in "Forgive" is a dead ringer for similar sounds on the Muslimgauze EP Nadir Of Purdah. Burial's off-kilter, jerky, dry rhythm tracks also greatly resemble later Muslimgauze.
But Burial has a slightly different frame of reference. Instead of Muslimgauze's vocal sound collages and Middle Eastern instruments, Burial uses snippets of soul and R&B records. That's probably what leads people to make the Massive Attack comparison, but the overall aesthetic of this album -- sparse, funereal, full of distant echoes -- is very different from Massive Attack's generally earthy and danceable style. Even Mezzanine, the noisiest Massive Attack album, has a very smooth, albeit heavy, rhythm section. Put on Flajelata, though, and you'll see something much closer to Burial in spirit. "Massive Attack in 2020" quickly becomes "Bryn Jones in 1986," which shows how much Jones was ahead of his time, I guess.
Even Burial's image seems somewhat derived from Muslimgauze, except much better poised to manipulate the media. Burial dramatically insists on total anonymity, when Jones effaced himself without hiding his real name. And he even exhibits some of Jones's uncompromising attitude (a recent Guardian interview with Burial emphasizes his "incredible passion and sincerity"), but he channels it into a much safer vein. Instead of Muslimgauze's disturbing, self-contradictory politics, Burial holds forth just as earnestly, but on totally harmless and inoffensive topics like the prevalence of disposable pop music, or the purity of old rave music. There is a large potential audience for this kind of persona -- all those sensitive young men who care deeply about things that actually don't matter that much.
Of course, this doesn't really reflect on the quality of Burial's first album. The similarities are striking, but Burial could just as well have arrived at the same musical ideas on his own. I just find it interesting that the process is only beginning to happen now, and that Jones's ideas, which really were ahead of their time, have finally started to seep into other electronic music in this manner.
Old soul and R&B samples are ideally suited to desolate, somber soundscapes, and Burial manipulates them in such a way as to make the words sound somewhat recognizable, but impossible to discern completely. "Distant Lights" in particular is excellent -- the rhythm section hisses and stumbles, half-covered by tape hiss and noise, while a dark, echoing guitar reverberates somewhere above and one of those samples repeats a simple phrase. It evokes the title perfectly, but then Burial is good with titles.
In fact, Burial is one of the few artists since Muslimgauze who can create a dark, paranoid atmosphere, making this one of the few albums in recent memory to be genuinely suited to its time. Burial has stated that his goal is to create music for late-night driving through London, and this album, despite being totally instrumental aside from the samples, creates a very convincing, and uninviting, contemporary portrait of the city. Somehow the very lack of words on this album seems eloquent, like there's some event or feeling hanging in the air that one can't quite describe or understand, so one just repeats something simple out of bewilderment. Or maybe the place is so hostile that there's no point in even saying it.
There are a few other standout moments. "Night Bus" is a beatless string interlude with rainy sound effects that adds some sentimental, old-fashioned movie sadness to the brooding sound, and provides a respite from the occasionally grating beats. "Gutted" has another one of those floating samples, but the main attraction is a gravelly voice ruminating about how "we come from two different tribes...and now we're both almost extinct." This sense of late-night reflection is the most appealing aspect of the album, and the calm tone suggests a fatalistic acceptance of inevitability.
At the same time, Burial doesn't quite summon the overwhelming dread that characterizes the greatest Muslimgauze releases in this style. His rhythms tend to be very self-similar, and none of them is memorable. The drums are all texture, no lead. For that matter, there are no real bass lines, either -- "Wounder" has a loud, primitive pulse, but it's not a real hook. All of the best songs revolve solely around well-chosen samples or melodic echo, combined with that cavernous dub production. So a bunch of the tracks like "Prayer" or "Wounder," which lack these key elements, feel half-finished or somehow incomplete. And, unfortunately, there's one track called "Spaceape" where some guy contributes a demonic guest vocal about hostile aliens and writhing tentacles, which kind of kills the serious mood.
True to Burial's intentions, the album is good mood music -- aside from "Spaceape," the lesser songs don't disrupt the atmosphere created by the best tracks. Burial doesn't sound like any other artists working today. But if you like his style, you owe it to yourself to find the work of Bryn Jones.