Burial is a rare type of artist. Not only is he good at what he does, there is actually a consensus about it. In other words, I don’t often come across people who believe Burial is not good at what he does. When I do, they rarely have a good argument to back that claim up. It seems like there is usually more controversy around well-known, talented artists. The seemingly undisputed nature of Burial’s talent is impressive.
What makes this interesting is that, because everyone can agree that they like Burial (or that what he does is good), they all have to come up with a unique way of describing what it is that makes him so good, lest they look like they’re copying everyone else. This leads to a phenomenon I’ve noticed in which no one can talk about Burial without sounding like a douchebag. We’ll see how I do.
I’ve heard a lot of very good characterizations of what Burial “sounds like.” I’ve heard that his music sounds like walking down the streets of one of London’s nightlife districts late at night, and hearing the electronic music pounding through the walls. It’s muffled, but you can make out the beat. I’ve heard his music described as “the feeling you get when you’re in a crowded subway station and everyone is moving and making noise around you.”
I think the word that best captures what Burial’s music is about is “loneliness.” His songs are introspective, and they couple the comforting warmth of vinyl crackle and synths with the emotionally distant sounds of unnatural, muffled drumbeats and the equally unnatural chopped-up samples. I’m someone who has listened to a lot of Burial-like artists in the past year or so, and to this day, this combination is not easily replicated. There are some newer artists who do a good job¹, but Burial has still managed to leave them in the dust with his newer releases.
It is the newer releases that I intend to talk about today, because I already loosely discussed his earlier album, Untrue, in my first post about Burial². To give a bit of background, after a couple of attempts at getting into Burial’s music, I finally clicked with Untrue, and it quickly became one of my favorite albums. I think Archangel, Shell of Light, and indeed most tracks on the album are some of the greatest electronic tracks ever written. It’s not often that I run into an artist or album that I enjoy that much.
When such a thing occurs, I become worried. Over the years, I’ve seen several of my favorite artists fall off dramatically after one or two amazing albums. I actually have a hypothesis that it’s inevitable for an artist to seemingly “become crap” if they keep releasing album after album, either because they change their sound too much from what made them good, or they go the opposite direction and rip off the formula for their most successful track and produce basically copies of it. After listening to Untrue over and over, I developed a fear that it would happen to Burial. Across 2011 and 2012, he released three EPs (and several collaboration tracks that I won’t be talking about today), and my fear that these EPs would not live up to Untrue kept me from listening to them until recently.
I finally bit the bullet and gave them a listen, and I’ll tell you up front: he could’ve released all three as one album in 2012, and it would’ve been a stunning album. Since he did not, I will review each separately.
Street Halo. Street Halo, released in 2011, is the weaker of the three EPs, but not by much. It is in line with the formula used on Untrue: cohesive, straightforward tracks that effectively set a mood. What the EP lacked, compared to Untrue, were the vocal samples as an important component of the track. He still had the vocal samples in Street Halo, but the problem was that they were often too indistinguishable to be seen as actual vocals. I rate the tracks 1. NYC, 2. Stolen Dog, 3. Street Halo. NYC and Stolen Dog are two that could have made it onto Untrue, in my opinion. Street Halo is by no means a bad track, but I find it a bit too uninteresting compared to the other two tracks on the EP, and the rest of his work.
NYC is textbook Burial. Groovy, hopping 2step beat, echoing synths, and lyrics about being alone. Stolen Dog takes a slightly different direction. It is a much sadder sounding track, and while I cannot make out any of the vocal samples, the track distinguishes itself from Street Halo by being subdued rather than driving. It’s a great closer for the EP.
Kindred. Things take a wild turn from here on. I didn’t imply it earlier in the article, but there was actually quite a large gap in between when I heard Street Halo and when I listened to Kindred, so I didn’t really know what I was going to get. I put on Kindred and noticed immediately that all three tracks on the album were quite a bit longer than what I had considered “normal” for Burial. The reason for this is because he’s actually taken an approach that, for lack of a better description, reminds me of the hip-hop group cLOUDDEAD. What makes them, and this album, so interesting is that their tracks make frequent shifts in style and tone mid-song, but in a manner that doesn’t completely ruin the track, of course. It makes for songs that are very complex, very unique, and honestly somewhat visionary in nature. It’s completely different than what he did on Untrue, but it makes for a really good listen.
The first track on the album (also named Kindred) absolutely erupted on me. The drums are very in your face, the bass is very heavy — the song basically begins like an industrial track. At around two minutes in, you start to hear brief clips of what the song will become. When it finally bloomed into the main segment of the track, I was in love. That ever-present warmth of Burial’s tracks is coupled with a disjointed but melodic series of vocal samples, and all is right in the world. He puts in a pause, then hits you again. The bass is powerful, but not the way I felt about Street Halo — its a relaxing kind of power, like being pushed along with waves, rather than toppled over by them. I think, in this wholly different track, Burial recaptured everything that made Archangel such a good song for me. At the end, he even throws in a very peaceful change in direction, the way Shell of Light did.
Loner can be unfairly portrayed as a letdown, by comparison. It is not the epic that Kindred was, or that Ashtray Wasp is going to be. It is still a strong track. It’s got a tonality that reminds me of sci-fi soundtracks. It is repetitive, but it has a playful, adventurous feeling to it. It’s very upbeat. I could easily imagine it in some kind of chase scene.
I prefer Kindred to Ashtray Wasp, and that could simply be because I heard it first. I know many people prefer them the other way around. I’d say the difference between Ashtray Wasp and Kindred is that Ashtray Wasp has more aggressive synths, and less aggressive drums. Another thing I noticed about Ashtray Wasp is that Burial reuses some samples from earlier albums in it. That’s a pretty interesting thing to do, because Burial surely knows that his fans would recognize the sample. At around 7:30, the song makes a change in direction, and I actually prefer this segment to the opening one, even if some of the static/crackles sound like he’s wiping his shirt off on the mic (which he very well could have been). It leads into a heart-pumping final segment, which I also enjoyed more than the first. In this sense, Ashtray Wasp actually gets better as the track goes on, from “ok” to “very good.” All in all, terrific closer to a terrific album.
Truant/Rough Sleeper. By reviewing these EPs in the order they were released, I have probably lead myself into an anticlimactic finish. I prefer Kindred to Truant/Rough Sleeper, although both are amazing EPs. In terms of album design, T/RS is kind of like Kindred, without the middle track. Both Truant
²Burial actually has a self-titled album that came out before Untrue, but I have not heard the full album, so I will not be discussing it in this article.