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Album Review: Burial - Kindred

Album Review: Burial - Kindred
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Dub remixes of garage songs started to sweep over the sounds of London’s electronic music scene in the early 2000s. In essence, the sound consisted of shuffling garage and 2-step beats providing the backdrop for heavy, sub-bass riffs and experimentations. By the time the style began to receive radio airplay on BBC radio shows like John Peel and Mary Anne Hobbes (not to mention pirate stations) the sound had become solidly known as dubstep. The sound caught like wildfire and, for better or worse, began spawning innumerable permutations on the sound. While dark isn’t a word foreign to electronic music (especially in the likes of drum & bass and some of the more sparse first-wave trance) and really has been constant in the underground, dubstep as a whole pushed the edge of uneasy sounds harder than any of its predecessors. As simply put by a friend of mine, “Every time you listen to dubstep I feel like something is right behind me.” That sense of threat took its natural progression to flat out attack, particularly in the more popularized or fratty incarnations of the sound.

Even so, while dubstep as a sound experiment was and has continued to be one of the most consistently forward-looking scenes in electronic music (arguably, music in general), it’s easy to draw a line in the sand between when dubstep’s ambiance was mostly about “grime” and “filth” and when the “ghostly” and “lonely” sounds of what is known as “post-dubstep” distinctly began to develop as the scenes more pensive underbelly. That line is Burial.

It’s difficult to overstate Burial’s influence on the contemporary electronic music scene. While there was always a more sparse sound being pushed by the likes of Shackleton and Martyn, it wasn’t until Burial’s eponymous 2006 album and the subsequent and sublime Untrue in 2007 that the sound really caught on. It seemingly spawned a new boom of a hazier, cavernous sound in a lot of music that followed, influencing much-praised pop acts like The XX and Animal Collective, the move of minimal artists toward less mechanical aesthetics, and by proxy (to an extent) the developing “chillwave” phenomena. Just like it’s difficult to imagine many shoegaze artists developing as they did without My Bloody Valentine coming before them, it’s difficult to imagine the development of many recent producers such as Zomby, Oneohtrix Point Never, James Blake, Kryptic Minds, Mount Kimbie, etc etc, without Burial having released those two much-lauded albums.

This isn’t to say that Burial or his style is somehow novel or some deus ex machina of technique. Hand-built production has been around since the early days. Loneliness and haze are sounds well explored in minimal techno, house, the aforementioned shoegaze, and any number of lo-fi or singer-songwriter artists. Yet, Burial gives his productions an almost imperceptible amount of warmth to his productions that empowers his music with something his predecessors seemed to lack, and that struck a chord with so many listeners: nostalgia. For one reason or another, Untrue experienced a level of frenzied admiration and intellectualization that spread well beyond the realm of just dubstep or strictly electronic music. Fans began feeling a sort of personal attachment to Burial’s music not often felt for much dubstep or electronic at the time, and possibly because of that connection Untrue was a sort of wake-up call that marked a symbolically cataclysmic split of the dubstep scene into two main parties. If one side aimed to make you feel the threat of something coming, then the other side’s goal was to make you feel the aching sensation of something missed or left behind.

For nearly two years following Untrue, Burial went silent until his split EP, Moth / Wolf Cub, with Four Tet. Around that time, in an interview with FACT magazine, Burial said “The sound that I’m focused on is more, you know, when you come out of a club and there’s that echo in your head of the music you just heard…I love that music, but I can’t make that club sort of stuff…but I can try and make the afterglow of that music.” The sense of hazily remembering something, or hearing it through a wall… possibly not being sure if it was one or the other. Not a bad feeling in itself, but painted in the knowledge that it was passed or nonetheless out of reach. It was a perfect description of his sound up that point and still fitting on last year’s excellent Street Halo. That EP refined his trademark sound, taking that sense of aching nostalgia a little closer back toward the source of the “afterglow”. If Street Halo was a step closer to the memory, Burial’s newest release, Kindred, takes his sound so close that it virtually is the memory.

Kindred sees Burial exploring sounds larger and more immediate than anything found in his previous work. Like many great EPs, Kindred blurs the distinction between short and long form music presentation by feeling like a complete set in spite of its shorter track listing. This is easily Burial’s most ambitious work to date. While only three tracks, Kindred clocks in at just over thirty minutes. Street Halo’s tracklengths were already uncharacteristically long, but Kindred’s are unabashedly more expansive than anything he’s done before. Namesake “Kindred” is a sprawling eleven and half minutes, the housey “Loner” half shy of eight, and the wandering “Ashtray Wasp” just shy of twelve.

However, these aren’t the monolithic dance cuts characteristic of much electronic music. These three tracks are roaming and ever evolving. Each track is composed of several separate sections, making each sprawling track seem like their own individual mini-mixes that come together into one conjoined whole through Burial’s consistent production. If each track is a different mix to itself, then each also explores how mixes might assemble themselves.

“Kindred” takes to task how rests and pauses can highlight each section’s individual power. The rests on “Kindred” act less as actual breaks, but are instead Burial’s inverted take on the typical beat-build-drop-repeat formula so prevalent in the other side of dubstep. Where the typical build up to a drop is some sort of crescendo that builds, Burial does the exact opposite, allowing the previous section to disintegrate into near silence; not complete silence, but just enough to warn the listener that there’s something coming. Conversely, where the typical drop would usually be some club-rattling bass/synth combo, Burial’s “bass drops” (if you can call them that) are so monumentally deep and pervasive as to seem earth-shattering. The bulk of the song builds in bass-heavy immensity until the final third essentially sheds away the drones, leaving the beats themselves to swim in the lightness of ambient synth. In between each of these movements is a prolonged, nearly silent (except for that ever-present crackle) pauses in the music that only serve to exaggerate the impact of the following bit.

The different sections of “Loner” are instead called out by the presence of the song’s touchstone sound: that huge, cold, insistent, alarm-organ hybrid synth arpeggio. The track opens with a reiteration of the ambient synths from the latter part of “Kindred”, but once the kick-snare beat drops in it’s straight house. There are none of the drawn out gaps of “Kindred” in “Loner”. The track is largely continuous with some element maintaining at all times, with only a few instances of the beat dropping out (and even then, only for a very short time). Unlike “Kindred” which builds and then recedes like a wave, “Loner” is more consistent in size and tone, but that ascension isn’t missed here because the song never seems particularly small, anyway. Each new wave of that main synth line brings a new mixing and pattern of the underlying elements with it, none particularly bigger than the others, but each evolving significantly enough to far avoid stagnation.

If “Kindred” and “Loner” progress in easily followed patterns (one wavelike and the other consistent, but varied), then “Ashtray Wasp” tests the limits of how different sections can sound without simply being different songs. “Ashtray Wasp” is virtually split in half. The first half is a monstrous, constantly shifting, lurking dubstep beast. It smashes together both the immensity of “Kindred” and the rave nostalgia of “Loner” into a block of music that is anxiety-inducing, emotive, and masterfully schizophrenic. The second half, in contrast, is a work of decidedly lower-key deep house that shifts between being headily quiet and delicate as if it stood up too fast after the heavy first half.

While the idea of variation seems to dominate the structure of Kindred, the biggest and most obvious evolution of all is in the production style. All the trademark Burial elements are still there, but with a new deftness of touch. Everything, from the metallic scrape percussion to the chopped-and-distorted vocals, seem to have been brought closer to the surface, allowed more room to breathe, and seem more immediately tangible and less abstract. Until now, Burial’s music has been consistently described as “headphone music” because of quiet, sulking intimacy of his aesthetic. When Street Halo came out last year it was exciting because it was finally a new solo release after four years of collaborations, but, while it is still excellent, it was exactly what we expected from Burial and not much more.

Kindred is simply and undeniably larger and more spacious than any of its predecessors. If all of Burial’s earlier work sought to capture the afterglow of a night out, Kindred takes aim at conquering that original space. All the sounds of Kindred are taken straight from raves both distant and not so far off then enlivened with a boldness and textural immensity similar to the color fields of a Rothko painting. The main vocal cuts are less manipulated and recall the soulful yet aloof techno divas of 90s dance. Arguably, for the first time in his music Burial really lets his vocals sing. The synth lines, especially the huge arpeggio hook in “Loner”, are classic rave nostalgia. Unlike his previous work, though, nothing on Kindred sounds like it’s being heard from another room or far away, though. In a sense, the sound of Kindred seems to come from everywhere, both near and far. The most obvious evidence of this newfound bigness is in the bass. While Burial’s bass has always been one of the deeper, less “produced” sounding of any bass in dubstep or music in general, some of the bass on Kindred is so large sounding that it might not even be recognized as musical out of this context. Similar to the work of contemporary Tim Hecker, Burial has an ear for sounds that you might not even realize were beautiful until he put them together. The booms on “Kindred” and “Ashtray Wasp” sound more like what bombs or huge ships might sound like in war movies. They don’t sound like they’re really trying to make walls collapse. They just sound like walls collapsing. Kindred in general sounds less like the product of a dance producer and more like the work of a sound engineer.

It seems odd to describe a half hour EP in cinematic terms, but works like Kindred act as a reminder that stories don’t need to be long to be epic. Sometimes quality craft can be enough to impress an audience. For an artist like Burial, who was already hailed for his production prowess, to not only surpass his previous level of production, but to do so while also breaking away from his typical song structure is damn near awe-inspiring. If Burial is conscious of the buzz that surrounds him then Kindred is his way of not just meeting expectation, but virtually commanding them to be even higher. As of now it’s been five years since his last “full length” release, and if Kindred is any indication of where things are headed then Burial may be poised to turn us all on our heads in the near future.


Track listing

1. Kindred
2. Loner
3. Ashtray Wasp
Submitted by Rock
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#2 (Permalink) Tue, 2-21-12, 8:55 PM Old
Jesus Christ, man.
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Danny Perkins
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#3 (Permalink) Tue, 2-21-12, 8:59 PM Old
More Rock reviews, please? It's easy to become a fanboy of Burial because he is so terribly consistent and produces some truly involving and wonderful pieces. Your background and description really gives the listener a great idea of what to expect and leads them back to his older works if they fall in love with Kindred. Excellent, excellent write-up here. It gives me a lot more to chew on with this EP.
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