Before dubstep meant Skrillex and “Turn Down For What” and all manner of EDM excess, it meant Burial. Or at least that’s what it meant to me, the ignorant American for whom glowing reviews of a then-anonymous William Bevan became a functional equivalent to the pirate radio broadcasts that informed his sound. Every genre has its crossover celebrities, the figures beloved by even the dabblers and dilettantes. With his early releases for Kode9’s fledgling Hyperdub label — headlined by 2006’s self-titled debut LP and 2007’s instantly legendary Untrue — Burial made himself that for dubstep. There was a whole universe of briskly skittering beats and ghostly samples and intensely meditative ambient passages to be explored. Burial, and especially Untrue, became an entry point into that world — less a gateway than a manhole that led down toward a misty, clattering underground tunnel network.
Plenty of people probably plunged through that opening and immersed themselves in the realm of heady electronic dance music, which continued to flourish in parallel with this decade’s big-budget EDM boom. I merely tilted my ear in that direction from time to time, usually whenever Bevan emerged from the shadows with new music. I am the type of person who hears a UK garage beat on a 1975 song and thinks, “Hmmm, sounds like Burial.” I am not all that well versed in how Bevan’s music compares to his peers, or where it fits within the legacy of “music about dance music,” as The New Yorker’s Hua Hsu described it. What I can tell you is how it sounds, how it makes me feel, how he has expanded and refined his palette over the course of his singles and EPs in Untrue’s wake, how he’s made himself an essential artist for even those of us who don’t know Berghain from Borgnine.
It helps that Burial himself has finally compiled much of his 2010s output into a standalone document. In the four years after Untrue, the famously reclusive Bevan went almost all the way dark, releasing nothing during the interim besides a collaborative 12″ with Four Tet in 2009. But since returning with 2011’s Street Halo EP, he has mostly maintained a steady output of music, usually delivered in small chunks, occasionally with high-profile collaborators like Zomby and Massive Attack and the Bug. Focusing squarely on Bevan’s solo work, Tunes 2011-2019 sequences the highlights from that nine-year stretch into 17 tracks over two discs, resulting in the most immersive Burial experience to date.
Granted, with no new tracks and only two released after 2017, it’s an experience you could have created yourself pretty easily by creating your own playlist of Burial’s 2010s output. This one, though, was sequenced by Bevan himself, a guided tour that recontextualizes all those stray outbursts of new music as one long journey to the edges of waking life. And it certainly is long — not just the kind of album you can get lost in, but one that invites getting lost, that often sounds like getting lost. Although we typically avoid featuring compilations in this column, Tunes is an occasion worth celebrating, a vast collection of music that proves a tour de force doesn’t have to be forceful.
People have always described Burial’s music as cinematic, and it’s true enough that Tunes could be the score for some movie on the borderline between action and sci-fi involving back-alley violence, warehouse raves, and close encounters with mysterious glowing lights. The songs will inevitably drift into the background sometimes, lending eerie drama to your daily experience. Yet this is foreground music, music that brings microscopic focus to its details and textures. It’s a study in how far Bevan can stretch the template he perfected on Untrue. That signature Burial sound involved beats that swung hard and jittered anxiously as they raced past spectral vocal samples and through clouds of heavy emotion. The song title “Ghost Hardware” showed a keen level of self-awareness on Bevan’s part. Sometimes the sonic fog was denser and the beats more spaciously hollowed-out, trading out that breathless sense of forward momentum for a feeling of floating or even falling in slow motion. The tunes on Tunes find lots of unexplored territory within that frigid dusk-to-dawn environment.
Sometimes they do so by playing up the ambient and downtempo elements, a process that goes to the extreme on the shapeless and haunting opening pair of “State Forest” and “Beachfires.” Elsewhere, as on “Street Halo” and “Kindred,” Bevan fills all that empty space in his beats with more lush textures than usual, creating a brawnier but no less brainy aesthetic. The eternally rad techno speed rush “Rival Dealer” may be the most muscular, hardest-hitting record in Burial’s career. “Ashtray Wasp” switches up Bevan’s usual rhythmic preferences for something bigger, faster, jazzier, while “Night Market” could have been the jumping-off point for a whole album of deconstructed synth-pop explorations.
The more distinctly melodic “Stolen Dog” glides like Burial collaborator Thom Yorke’s best attempts to wrangle this sound into pop music, albeit without actually becoming pop music. So many of these tracks work that way, more like echoes of some alternate-universe radio hit remixed for a club that may not exist within physical reality. “Young Death” warmly flickers its way to the hook, “I will always be there for you,” then bottoms out back into the cold as if reminding us what an impossible promise that is. “Claustro” is Burial at his most immediate, a frantic club-pop track led by a voice that for once sounds like it belongs to a living human being. But the poppiest Burial song of all may be “Come Down To Us,” a glimmering soup of samples that includes vocals from both Chris Brown and Michael Jackson — an overly perverse stroke from an artist who specializes on weaving discomfort into pleasure.
Most of this music has existed for years, deposited across history in fits and starts. Tunes puts it all into the same place for the first time, snapping into focus what a prolific force Bevan has been without ever releasing more than three songs at a time. If you’ve been paying close attention, cataloguing every move in real time, maybe a comp like this one is redundant. But I suspect there are more than a few listeners out there like me, for whom the album format is essential to understanding the breadth and arc of an artist’s work — particularly this artist, one whose music has always lurked in the shadows daring you to come to it. If you’ve always wanted to excavate Burial’s catalog, here’s a brilliant place to begin.
Tunes 2011-2019 is out 12/6 via Hyperdub. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Who’s first album in 13 years, Who.
• Camila Cabello’s big-budget pop offering Romance.
• Pop. 1280’s noise-punk dispatch Way Station.
• Dub legend Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Heavy Rain.
• Earnest and atmospheric Bandcamp balladeer Emily Yacina’s Remember The Silver.
• Former One Direction member Liam Payne’s solo debut LP1.
• Virginia hardcore upstarts Division Of Mind’s self-titled debut.
• KC power-pop combo the Whiffs’ punchy, catchy Another Whiff.
• Forest Swords’ score for the new movie The Machine Air.
• French composer Yann Tiersen’s Portrait.
• Stars’ compilation LaGuardia: The Best Of Stars So Far.