The UK’s DJ/composer Burial is by no means an unknown commodity to those who dwell predominantly in the realms of “electronic music”, a term that is rather over inclusive and perhaps has lost its true referent. But for those whose aren’t as conversant with electronic music, Burial would be largely a mystery. After Andy Stott’s brilliant 2012 LP, Luxury Problems (click ← to listen in full), I’ve been revisiting the realm of Down-Tempo Electronic music and obsessing once more over Burial’s brilliance and wanted to make sure folks weren’t missing out on this style of music that is still predominantly an “underground” or “niche” phenomena in the U.S.
If you want to start listening, while reading click to hear Burial’s Kindred (EP).
Back in the 90s when many bands were still mostly playing, recording, and manipulating real instruments, the term electronic music was a means of distinguishing artists, DJs and composers who largely delved in the realm of synthesizers, mix boards, sampling and digitally constructed music. In all fairness, this technology already started manifesting itself in the 70s and 80s and can be heard in much of 80s pop, avant-garde and dance music. But, the electronic music of which I’m referencing spawned a whole culture and unique sort of sound that found its home in places like Detroit, Chicago, London and Manchester and there are some great compilations of the early House and Electronic Dance music culture of the late 80s and early 90s. In particular, I would recommend as essential viewing 24 Hour Party People, the unofficial history of Factory Records, the label that spawned Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays.
In the twenty years since the rise of electronic music, many bands and artists have started to incorporate these elements into their music and have blurred the lines between the realms of traditional rock, indie rock, dance, hip hop and R&B. A great example if this are artists like Grimes and Purity Ring both of whom are often regarded as “Indie-Rock” musicians but whose music is largely indebted to certain brands of electronic music, specifically the rhythms and structure of techno, drum and bass, dub-step and, even at times to, ambient music. At this stage of musical evolution, even the lines between those sub-genres of electronic music have blurred.
Burial, aka William Bevan, is one of the best examples of this cross-fertilization of musical sub-genres. Often labeled as a Dub-Step recording artist, Burial’s compositions and soundscapes incorporate hints of techno, house, and ambient music into the predominantly drum and bass derivative sub-genre of Dub Step. The distinguishing feature of Dub-Step from traditional drum and bass is often “slower” tempo, generally Dub-Step is anywhere from 20 to 40 bpms (“beats per minute”) slower. For the non-music theory minded this is a rather drastic difference because it is the difference between heart-pounding, dance-floor pounding rhythm and bass to a far more languid, contemplative 2 beat structure, or what some might term a slow jam. What is similar in both forms is the de-emphasis off vocals, lyrics, and “storytelling” and a focus on repetition, layering, juxtaposition of disparate sounds, and musical textures. Let me step back for a second and give my layperson’s overview on “electronic music”.
- Up-tempo versus down-tempo – The words themselves pretty much give it away but from a structural perspective up-tempo numbers tend to have much higher bpms with an unrelenting pace. In contrast, down-tempo tends to soothe or induce trances.
- As a general matter, Techno, House, dancehall & dance-floor tracks, and some Drum and Bass are up-tempo.
- Ambient, Dub-Step, Grime, and some Drum and Bass tend towards down-tempo rhythms.
- Drum and Bass is really the broadest of the group and can be both sweat inducing or slow groove generating.
- Ambient music generally isn’t found on the dance floors except when it has been remixed or mashed up to up the tempo. Take for example, Burial’s “UK” on Untrue, a track that begins with a traditional ambient motif (spacey, epic, film-like, mellow) and adds a subtle but noticeable percussive pattern that takes raises the physical intensity. In a way integrating mind and body.
Now that I’ve gotten that largely unresearched, possibly misguided, inexact and questionable “primer” out of the way, I will turn to what inspired this line of thought: Burial’s Kindred EP. Released in 2012, this 3-track EP is just another example of how Burial continues to redefine and raise the bar on his fellow DJs. This EP could easily provide a one-stop shop for your evening’s listening pleasure by leaving it on repeat. Building off the foundation of Untrue, his sophomore full length 2007 LP, Kindred further ups the tempo while exploring a more long form structure. On Untrue, no single track is longer that 6 minutes. It is a rich full length exploration of rhythms and textures in shorter bursts, almost pop-like or traditional dance cuts. In contrast, Kindred is composed of three tracks, two 11 minute pieces and one 7 minute piece, that feel like more integrated wholes then pieces of larger puzzle. That being said all three tracks compliment each other. The bookend 11 minutes pieces are far livelier and diverse in feel and sampling, while the middle track is more subdued. The more extended format provides Burial a canvas to further explores multiple musical themes then interlacing and weaving the different movements back into each other. In a way, it echoes the work of minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass of whom I’ve previously written. It’s breathtakingly intricate yet thoroughly understated. The genius of the music is in its seeming simplicity that by often slow variations can evoke a panoply of sonic textures, emotional temperatures, and discursive thoughts.
So I would suggest beginning with Burial’s Kindred then comparing that with his previous full length Untrue once you’ve tried those out check out the latest release Truant / Rough Sleeper, an even more sedate and circuitous. No matter where you start or end up, it’s all a perfect way to settle into the end of a holidaze.