A little more than halfway through the 10-minute title track of Burial’s Rival Dealer EP, around the time the first titanic sawtooth bassline disappears into static and the second one comes roaring in, we hear a brief burst of Lord Finesse declaiming “you know my motherfuckin’ style.” But if that’s Burial using Finesse as his mouthpiece, he’s absolutely wrong. Rival Dealer, in its three-track half-hour glory, is definitive proof that we don’t know Burial’s motherfucking style, that almost everything we thought we knew about the reclusive producer is wrong. In the past, I’ve admired certain elements of Burial’s production — the rainy alone-in-the-universe vibe, the delicate stacking of samples — without quite connecting to the genius that so many others heard in his tracks. But even for a relative skeptic like me, Rival Dealer stands as a monumental piece of work, one that keep’s Burial’s chilly architecture intact while pushing him into radically new places, both stylistically and emotionally.
Musically, the EP goes in directions that I didn’t know Burial would ever consider. That title track, for instance, is easily the most immediate and physical thing Burial has ever done — a jumpy, skittery, drum-rattling, bass-rumbling love letter to the moment when early-’90s hardcore techno first started to morph into jungle. (That Lord Finesse line is totally something one of those producers would’ve sampled.) With its shattering breakbeats and its canned lo-fi bass-buzz, the track grabs your stomach and jerks it around in a way that Burial has never done before. In the producer’s native UK, these are musical signifiers that carry serious cultural weight, evoking shared memories of secluded castle raves and Vapo-Rub masks and novelty hits full of coded ecstasy language. They reflect the moment where a subculture came together and came into being. Even without those associations, though, the track works fascinating magic — its bursts of intensity flaring up and then fading, its drums disappearing into chaotic sample-soup and then turning into something else completely. The 10-minute song feels like at least three different, distinct tracks, including a final movement where the drums disappear completely and a voice coos “I’ve been watching you” over deserted-moor synths. Even at its most jittery, too, the track lets haunted samples flit in and out, its beauty staying just out of reach.
That beauty snaps much more into focus on “Hiders,” the second track. The song is a work of near-pure ambience, its glassy pianos lapping in and out like waves on a lonely shore while a disembodied voice moans. Eventually, the drums come in and it turns into glorious elegiac house music, but only for a brief moment before the rain comes in and the song just dissipates, like an ice cream cone on pavement. And then there’s “Come Down To Us,” the EP’s real centerpiece, 13 minutes of sitar echoes and bass-fog and heartbeat drums. That one, too, eventually turns into something warm and concrete and pretty, something that vaguely resembles new-agey pop music, but only after wandering through the wilderness and sometimes disappearing completely into sound-effect hiss. And when those globs of melody — melody that Burial has never really wholeheartedly embraced like this before — come splatting in, the feeling reminds me of the return of Thurston Moore’s glorious fluttering guitar line after the chaotic middle section of Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane.”
The effect there isn’t just aesthetically pretty; it’s emotionally reassuring in a way that’s hard to put your finger on. In a rare public statement, Burial has explained that he wanted these tracks to be “anti-bullying tunes that could maybe help someone to believe in themselves, to not be afraid, and to not give up, and to know that someone out there cares and is looking out for them.” Even if he didn’t make that profoundly based sentiment so concrete, though, we’d still know that there was a personal warmth at work here, an empathy that’s relatively rare in instrumental electronic music. The EP ends with a soundbite of Lana Wachowski speaking while receiving the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award: “Without examples, without models, I came to believe voices inside my head — that I was a freak, that I am broken, that there’s something wrong with me, that I will never be lovable. Years later, I find the courage to admit that I am transgendered, that this does not mean that I am unlovable. So this world that we imagine in this room might be used to gain access to other rooms, to other worlds, previously unimaginable.” And even though the music has mostly disappeared by this point, it feels like the moment of self-assurance and affirmation and acceptance toward which the entire EP has been building. It’s a profoundly moving moment, and it makes everything that’s come before — including the serrated breakbeats of the title track — shimmer in its light.
Plenty of people have already pointed out that the cover art of Rival Dealer, with its blocky text on a field of black, closely resembles that of Beyoncé’s BEYONCÉ, another masterful piece of music dropped, as an exceedingly welcome surprise, into what’s usually an end-of-year dead zone. Beyoncé and Bural, of course, come from vastly different cultural contexts, and they pursue vastly different aesthetic goals in their music. Still, there are some surprising coincidental threads that unify the two records. They’re both sparse, emotive, beautifully forward-thinking records, and they take club music sounds and use them to fascinating, unexpected ends. Both albums seem to aim to lift up and empower the people listening, rather than to just explore the moods and feelings of their creators. And both end on glorious, redemptive notes of hope. With winter cold settling in and 2013 finally rattling like a close, it feels like a real comfort to have these two people out here making music, giving it to us when we might really need it.
Rival Dealer is out now on Hyperdub.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Beyoncé’s staggering surprise BEYONCÉ.
• Disclosure’s remix comp Settle: The Remixes.
• The José González-heavy Secret Life Of Walter Mitty soundtrack.
• Mac Miller’s live-tracks-plus-rarities collection Live From Space.
• The Anchorman 2 soundtrack album.