Burial - Rival Dealer

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.

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Comments (21)
  1. This is a great write up. I actually totally agree that Burial and Beyonce are hitting similar emotional notes (which is really weird and great).

    Also, sorry to go here, but did you all see that Rival Dealer only got honorable mention on Pitchfork’s albums list? That’s really mysterious to me…

    • My guess is that they’d finalized the top 50 albums (or hadn’t had enough time to sit on it( list but this EP was too big of a deal to ignore completely.

      Weirder to me though was their selection of “Hold On, We’re Going Home” as song of the year. I like that song a lot… but best of the year!?

      • this has probably been covered elsewhere, but why has there been no discussion of other publications’ year end lists? arguing about these lists was one of my favorite stereogum exercises.

    • I was surprised by the same thing, figured they’d wait until next year’s lists to deal with.

      I’ll be curious to see, come Thursday, whether they choose to deal with Bey this year or not. I have to think that if they do, it should be positioned solidly near the top of the list, but then I would have thought the same for Burial. We’ll see whether they draw a line in the sand somewhere in the two day gap between when Rival Dealer and Beyoncé dropped…

      • They wound up putting Truant/Rough Sleeper in this year’s list (as well as Rival Dealer in Honourable Mentions), and didn’t put Beyonce in. Maybe they’ll find a way to put her in next year’s list like they did with Truant/Rough Sleeper.

  2. great review but all the writers saying stuff like you did that ‘the track (rival dealer) grabs your stomach and jerks it around in a way that Burial has never done before’ havn’t heard speedball2 before.

  3. One of this year’s finest releases. Masterpiece.

  4. While it can’t be denied that Burial is incorporating new techniques all over “Rival Dealer”, reading this write-up makes it seem like Burial has NEVER done anything like this EP, which I think is untrue.

    “Kindred” was the a significant “OH SHIT!” moment where I feel Burial made the most profound shift and break from his previous material. Sure, “Street Halo” was also a 3 song EP, but none of those songs even breached the 8 minute mark and felt more similar to “Untrue” than what we’ve received since. “Kindred” was the major leap forward and is, I feel, wholly responsible for where we are now with “Rival Dealer”.

    While I think “Rival Dealer” hits all the sweet spots “Kindred” hit and then some, I don’t want to live in a world where “Kindred” is forgotten. Or a world where “Truant / Rough Sleeper” is forgotten, as I feel they were both integral releases that helped prepare us for “Rival Dealer”. The big surprise is that who would’ve thought he would find MORE ways to improve the new sound he initially explored on “Kindred”.

    Point being: If this is the first album you heard from Burial, I could see how this could be a shocker. But the truth is, he had already laid the path along the way. I don’t even think “Rival Dealer” is the proverbial mansion it’s been leading us too. I think we’ve finally made our way to the doorstep at the end of a long winding path (“Truant / Rough Sleeper”) and long past the initial gate onto the property (“Kindred”). The house is magnificent, but I feel in another year, we’ll step inside and see that we’ve only just begun.

  5. this one is breathtaking.. i put this on after a 9 hour shift, smoked a bit and sat back and listened. the first track it took a few minutes to sink in, but as soon as the reverbed drums of “Hiders” kicked in, my jaw dropped and stayed dropped until it finished.

    I love how he made a statement about this EP being a “protective spell”, it’s a beautiful statement

  6. Don’t hate me for this, but I’m having an “Everybody Hurts” type reaction. A track that not only requires me to disable my cynical filter from attacking the overtly feel-good message and major chords in order to appreciate its emotional directness–but gets half of its charm from that liberation. Like when you figure out how to stop feeling guilty for your “guilty pleasure” song. On par with Kindred, amazing.

  7. Just about the font, Burial has always used that font, IT IS HIS OKAY, BEYONCE IS STEALING IT

  8. I think it’s interesting how quick people are to disregard the Truant / Rough Sleeper EP, which IMO was more of a directional shift than the Kindred EP. (In any case, Pitchfork snubbed it in their review of Rival Dealers: “It’s unquestionably his best release since Kindred”.) Albeit I love the Kindred EP, and “Kindred” indisputably was a drastic shift in his sound (not to mention a beautiful piece of music), but “Rough Sleeper” is what holds a special place in my heart as when I realized how dramatically changed Burial’s sound had become since Untrue: the soft warm organs and that lost-sounding sample at the start, then progressing to the gorgeous middle section when the voice explains, “There’s a light surrounding yoooooooouuuuu” and what sounds like the most joyful set of wind-chimes ever. Not sure I can actually explain how I felt when I first heard that song, mostly because it was a bewildering mix of sadness and happiness and total peace, and partially because I was so stoned at the time, lol.

    In any case, I had no idea that was Gavin DeGraw sampled in “Rival Dealers” until just recently. He makes for a pretty sexy-sounding female vocal; I can’t get over how epic that is.

    And it’s weird to look at the similarities between BEYONCÉ and Rival Dealers. Both dropped out the sky (Beyoncé’s, of course, more so), both happy to skewer your expectations, both taking electronica and pop music to weird, dazzling new places. Together they’re the Christmas gift I didn’t ask for but now realize I desperately needed.

  9. Just saw that Pitchfork deemed this worthy of not only an honourable mention, but also the number 33 spot on their albums list.

    • Well, “Rival Dealer” Honorable Mention & “Truant / Rough Sleeper” at #33

      I don’t see why they couldn’t put the latter in the Honorable Mentions and then mixed the former into the mix appropriately. Or why not do their old school method of combining them? (Remember Fleet Foxes / Sun Giant & Cryptograms / Fluorescent Grey ? Those actually made sense)

      • Yeah, I realised my error soon after my comment, when I went to actually read the list properly.
        True, that would be a better idea. Or just wait until next year and give “Rival Dealer” the top 20/ top 10 position it deserves.
        In my head, Sun Giant and the Fleet Foxes’ eponymous album are one work because, in 2008, I used to just spin them back to back.

  10. Absolutely incredible write up! I couldn’t agree with you more on all points! This is one of the best EPs from anyone that I have heard in a long time. It reminds me of dark smoky nights in the clubs & raves in Houston dancing so fucking hard that you felt like your heart would burst out of your chest but you just kept going all night! Amazing!

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