One year ago, Burial released his sixth EP, Truant/Rough Sleeper. The two tracks on this work were long ("Truant" running almost 12 minutes, and "Rough Sleeper" running almost 14 minutes) and altogether sounded like the fragments of musical ideas for an epic album that existed only in its maker's mind. But despite the EP's messiness, it felt strangely organic, like some urban animal that comes out only at night and whose habitat features the moon-glistening tracks of subways, the iridescent pools of leaked and soil-thickened oil, and the sparks of electric cables that link the dead underground city with the living surficial one. The beats on Truant/Rough Sleeper come alive, hobble for a bit, and then collapse into hisses and crackles. Ghosts enter and exit the tracks. Angels appear and glow in the ambient fog before being extinguished like the lamp on a faulty streetlight. The record has no narrative or theme, no beginning or end. And certain parts—the roughest, rawest parts—seem to have no designer. The sounds are as blind and godless as evolution itself.
But I have made a mistake. I have written the first paragraph of this review under the impression that the whole world knows who Burial is. Because this surely cannot be the case, some of us live in caves and other remote and disconnected parts of this planet, I will take a step back and discuss Burial's latest EP, Rival Dealer, and contrast it with his 2012 EP, only after this quick background. Burial is a London-based producer who first released an EP, South London Boroughs, in 2005, but became famous in 2006 soon after the ice queen of UK dubstep, Mary Anne Hobbs, played a mix of Burial's first, self-titled album on the BBC. (The mix was by Steve Goodman, the founder of Hyperdub, Burial's label.) Though his beats were fundamentally consistent with the sound emerging at that time (a blend of two-step, dub, and jungle), Burial introduced elements that were either completely new or deliberately or unknowingly imported from other regions of electronic music—such as the distortions and tapelike noises of Berlin's Basic Channel. Burial, whose identity is still in the shadows (though Wikipedia claims it's a chap who attended secondary school with producer Four Tet, William Bevan), also inaugurated, in my opinion, a whole new genre of music—and I will have more to say about this after my review of Rival Dealer.
Burial's latest release is actually more coherent than Truant/Rough Sleeper, and it's more human, more personal, and more existential. I recall Burial once saying (or writing—I used to communicate with him on MySpace) that he wanted to make a record that was as dark as finding the bloody body of your best mate in an elevator. Rival Dealer is not that record, but in parts it does have some of this elevator heaviness—particularly the first three minutes of his four-minute "Hiders." It also has the damned ghosts and barely bright angels we expect from a Burial tune. But what unifies the three tracks on this EP, two of which ("Rival Dealer" and "Come Down to Us") are long, are the beats, which lack the richness and innovation of his other productions. One tune has a disco beat, another an old-school Public Enemy–like beat, and another a generic hiphop beat. Though these beats do not inspire amazement or change/challenge your sense of time (check out "Ghost Hardware" or the unreleased "Gaslight"), they are by no means bad enough to kill Rival Dealer. The EP has a place in Burial's world.
As I said earlier, Burial not only helped to establish UK dubstep in the mid '00s, but he also launched a whole new branch of music. There is no name for this new sound yet, but it definitely has its source (shards of R&B or reggae vocals, rattley beats and shaky snare snaps, deep and dubby distortions) in Burial's first two LPs. For example, Downliners Sekt, a duo that's based in France but is originally from Barcelona, do not so much imitate Burial as continue, contribute to, enrich his sound in much the same way that Flying Lotus contributes to the sound founded by J Dilla. Locally, Burial is well-represented by Slow Year, whose recent self-titled album was released by Hush Hush Records, a label run by KEXP DJ Alex Ruder. Slow Year is Edward Haller (with occasional help from Brian Binning), and what he does to the Burial sound is deemphasize its beats and expand its gorgeous ghostly melancholy. Slow Year's gem is "Guts," which shows Haller not only listened to Burial deeply, but he has something very new and very personal to add to this line of musical dreaming. Slow Year has put Seattle on the Burial map.