Burial - Biography
No discussion of dubstep is complete without the mention of Burial. A mysterious British producer notoriously shy of developing any kind of public persona, Burial’s first record nonetheless brought dubstep to the attention of a global audience far beyond its London origins. Highly idiosyncratic, his sound deviates from the early forms of dark, dread filled dubstep created by the likes of Hatcha, Digital Mystikz, Loefah, Benga and Skream, to incorporate prominent influences from 2-step garage, house and ambient music. Hardly the case of a producer watering down an underground genre to achieve crossover success, Burial’s music is on the whole more experimental and obtuse than most dubstep. It’s simply a case of drawing out certain elements of a genre to achieve a very unique, personal sound that resonates with a wider audience. Burial, real name William Bevan (although he’d rather you didn’t know), has done just that over the course of two full-lengths. In the process he has also steered dubstep in a new direction.
The genre has roots in London’s UK garage scene from the late 1990s and early 2000s. Taking garage and 2-step’s swinging breakbeat rhythms and usually programming the drums in half-time, adding heavy sub bass and classic dub reggae effects, dubstep as we know it was born around 2000. Beginning as dubs of UK garage and grime tracks that appeared on the B-side of singles, the genre started to distinguish itself in 2001 at London’s Forward>> club night and radio show on Rinse FM. DJs like Kode 9, Hatcha and Zed Bias pioneered the genre. From 2003 onward dubstep has gone from an underground scene to a global sound mutating in hundreds of directions.
One of dubstep’s earliest champions has become one of the genre’s most restless producers and curators as well. Kode 9 has never let his own music calcify into what he sees as the typical dubstep trappings of dark sub bass. Through his own music’s development and through his curatorial role as head of the peerless Hyperdub label, Kode 9 has encouraged dubstep to branch out from its early beginnings. Possibly more than any other artist on Hyperdub, Burial fulfills this ambition.
Founded in 2004, Hyperdub’s first full-length release was Burial’s self-titled debut from 2006. Its possible Burial is really dubstep’s first full-length as well. Released a year after 2005’s South London Boroughs EP, the album is a fully realized aesthetic statement, obvious from the start. Eschewing dubstep’s big, macho sound Burial’s drums are slinky, snaky things. The grooves are slippery, adding a mysterious quality that is miles away from the plodding, leaden and often heavy-handed beats of early dubstep. These far-swung beats combine with elastic, muted basslines, ghostly melodies and swirling, crackling ambience taken from the sounds of rain and vinyl surface noise to form Burial’s unique soundworld. Perhaps the most important element is his use of pitch-shifted, distant vocal samples. Mostly female, these disembodied voices cry out soulfully and mournfully, the ghosts left to haunt the club once the party is long over. Tracks like “Distant Lights” and “Gutted” alternate between bliss and sorrow with an addictive throb. The record was a giant crossover success and gathered endless critical praise from outlets like Pitchfork and The Wire, which named it record of the year. Dubstep was officially out in the open.
After the Distant Lights and Ghost Hardware EPs from ’06 and ’07 respectively, Hyperdub released the second Burial full-length in ‘07, Untrue. Unbelievably these new songs bettered the debut. The producer incorporated more obvious elements from garage and house. The tracks were funkier, sexier, looser yet somehow just as dark and mournful. The vocal samples move to fore, often carrying the melody of certain tracks like the stunning “Archangel” or “Etched Headplate.” The glowing synths flicker with a dim light as the distant vocals melt into the smoky atmosphere. In addition to the unique production, there’s an obvious heart and soul at work here, every sound is seemingly infused with emotional energy and earnest sincerity. It’s not a wonder why Burial would like to stay in the shadows. Everything is put on the line on this album, an extreme rarity in electronic music of any kind.
It wasn’t until August of 2008 that Burial reluctantly identified himself as William Bevan. Surrounding speculation that Burial was a moniker for Richard D. James or Norman Cook, as well as being a contender for the Mercury Prize, Bevan acknowledged his identity. Since then he has collaborated with Four Tet on the Moth / Wolf Cub EP and released the excellent “Fostercare” track on the 5 Years Of Hyperdub compilation from 2009.
By focusing on the mutations of his own inspirations rather than current trends in dubstep, Burial has created a highly unique, singular soundworld over the course of two full-lengths. Incorporating ambient textures and the loose beats of UK garage he has steered dubstep producers to fold in elements of minimal techno, soul and house, making the genre much more open to experimentation at a point when it could have calcified into a boring, paint by numbers sound. Burial’s records are a rarity in the world of electronic music, boasting a willingness to ignore trends as well as a heavy emotional charge. His success continues to be more than well deserved.