The year is 2006. The UK Bass scene — forged in garage, 2-step, grime, and the newly emerging dubstep — was a breeding ground for burgeoning sounds and underground talent.
BBC’s Mary-Anne Hobbs showcased Dubstep Warz to the world, and brought artists such as Digital Mystickz, Horsepower Productions and Skream to prominence. Another such artist, Kode9, also had a new label — Hyperdub Records — that would become pivotal to this explorative scene.
For years Kode9 had received letters and CDs from a fan who made music out of his home. That man, poignantly named “Burial,” would go on to release his first EP through Hyperdub in 2005. But it was the following year, when he returned with the label’s first full-length release, that it would change electronic music forever.
From Out South London’s Boroughs
The self-titled LP, with its dark, subway surfing basslines and rhythmically off-kilter drums sounded like nothing else upon its release. Birthed from a love of rave music, Burial’s use of Soundforge — an old audio editing software that has no synthesizers and solely waveforms — created a ruggedly different feel to the clean, synthesized sound dominating UK club music at that time. From its birds-eye-view album cover to its musical influences, the record oozes mid-2000s London.
From the concrete sirens of “U Hurt Me,” disturbingly sampling Ashanti’s No.1 R&B hit “Foolish,” or the whirring emotive ambience of “Forgive,” the record’s dubstep roots were soaked in ominous moods of trip-hop and glimpses of rave-like euphoria.
The song “Prayer” samples a recording of a man walking down the street and into a church. It’s so subtle, Burial says, “you can’t analyse what the change is, there’s just some change in the air, the air in the tune.” It was this kind of attention to atmospheric detail, while thick, crackling kick drums roll back and forth, that made it rich in wallowing moods and textures. In a dubstep scene already buzzing, it wasn’t until Burial that people saw the full sonic possibilities.
Despite no released singles or press, and no clue as to his identity, the accolades quickly piled on. Mixmag named it 5th best album of the year, the Guardian awarded it five stars, and NME features it on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.
Come 2007, things had suddenly shifted. In a way, William Bevan was still the same person — he worked the same day job and only close friends and family knew his true identity. “I’ve had times when I’ve had mates sitting next to me and they’ve put my tunes on without knowing… I’ve had someone say to me, ‘Yeah, Burial’s a girl. I know someone who met her,'” he told the Guardian in a rare interview.
He had spent years making tracks for the first record. But now, waiting for the sun to set and hit the studio (he always made songs at night), there was a newfound pressure. Attempts at dark, more technically-minded sounds weren’t clicking. He called his mum who exclaimed, “just do a tune, fuck everyone off, don’t worry about it.” He called her back 20 minutes later, having just made “Archangel” — now his best-known track. Its ethereal undertones would come to define the next record, and within two weeks the album was finished.
The resulting magnum opus, Untrue, leaned further into his iconized sound and built from it, incorporating 2-step and garage. It featured vocal samples on all tracks, giving the record an unparalleled emotive feel compared to its predecessor, welding a metamorphosis of dark and light. Deep, ominous basslines wobbling like loose wheels on the London Underground, with the twisted love-ballad warmth of Beyonce and Ray-J vocals, made the record scale the entire spectrum — from torture to bliss — of human emotion.
The euphoria was there, but unlike his rave forefathers, you had to dig for it. It wasn’t ever-present, but fleeting, hard to find amongst its brick-walled reverberations. It wasn’t plastic promises of nirvana laid in a constant sensory barrage like blinding strobes of the club, but rather the faint yellow buzzing at the end of a long dark tunnel “like a distant light.”
If the first LP was unapologetically South London, Untrue was the ascension above it. Equal in its street-corner grit, but met with an otherworldly “archangel” element. He had captured a feeling that was vividly localised but now soul-stirringly global.
FACT and Resident Advisor have named Untrue the first and third best album of the 2000s respectively. Rolling Stone placed it 11th on their Greatest EDM Albums Of All Time, and Pitchfork called it “the most important electronic album of the century so far.” The word was officially out. Burial’s legacy as an artist was cemented, but Burial as a name was only just beginning.
The Myth Behind the Mask
In 2008 the album was nominated for the Mercury Prize and along with it came a new wave of publicity. His name hit front pages, betting agency William Hill placed him odds-on favourite following one of the biggest gambles in the Mercury Awards history, and UK newspaper the Sun began an investigation to “dig up the real Burial.”
Journalist Gordan Smart — speculating he was Aphex Twin or Fatboy Slim — began a “manhunt,” offering rewards for his identity. It seemed fallacy to have an award favourite with no photographs or inspired Hollywood backstory. His investigation was unsuccessful (and even misled by Burial fans), and Elbow would subsequently win the award, but the damage had been done. Just two weeks after his nomination, Burial removed his mask to the world.
His buzz reached new heights — including a 1004% increase in sales in the week following the award — but more significantly for William Bevan, he now found himself at the crux of an industry he so rigorously avoided. For “journalists” like Gordon Smart, the mystery had been solved. For fans however, he was but a newly-named enigma, no less shrouded in a sonic paragon of mystique. A mystique that had grown autonomous with the name itself.
Following the hysteria, Burial returned to South London reclusion. Rumours of a third LP swirled, but with no press or shows to sweeten it, the attention-deficit limelight dimmed. It was four years until Burial returned with his next solo release — the 2011 3-track EP, Street Halo. Also met with critical praise, it served as the precursor to three more EPs — Kindred, Truant/Rough Sleeper and Rival Dealer — over the next two years. Still submerged in his gloomy underworlds, these tailored towards more technically impressive and compositional soundscapes, many tracks surpassing 10 minutes in length.
For fans, new releases provided not only new music, but more fragmented pictures to the man behind Burial. The mask was gone but the shadowy myth remained. Another social media storm surged amid claims he was actually fellow electronic artist and collaborator, Four Tet, and that William Bevan was just a cover. An “evidence-based” fan inquiry found both artists attended the same high school (which is actually true), and cited conspiracies including the fact that William Bevan is also a funeral service two hours out of London. Other conspiracies have claimed he was everyone from Banksy to, more jokingly, J.K. Rowling.
The following year came his first public sighting. Fitting of a lives-in-the-shadows figure, fans claim you can spot him at James Blake’s Boiler Room set, standing to the side beneath a gray hoodie, nodding along as Blake plays his track “Near True” and the crowd dances unknowingly. While fans are “sure” it’s him, referencing the only known photos of William Bevan, it has never been confirmed. The mythos was officially at its peak.
But what made this fable so great? When discussing Burial’s identity craze, Guardian journalist and Burial interviewer Dan Hancox said it aptly:
“…ecstatically lost in a moment that is not named, tagged, tweeted, vined, live-streamed or recorded for posterity from 17 different angles… we want that mystery, we want that transcendental escape from digital permanence, but we want to know everything about our heroes and what they had for breakfast, too.”
Many artists have preached anonymity. Burial’s own reticent ways were inspired by his jungle and garage predecessors. But where many — most famously Daft Punk — adopted masks to form obscurity, Burial’s mask transcends the physical form. Starved of personal information, Burial’s music has become the way to know him.
Fractured personal elements seep into the tracks, like the opening of “Etched Headplate” muffling “He’s not setting out to hurt people… he’s got a lot of love in him.” His use of multimodal sampling, which includes video game ammunition, phone recordings from his friends in his apartment, car keys in a Vin Diesel film, and the metallic clicking of his brother’s lighter, offers further glimpses.
“Archangel” samples the opening sequence of Metal Gear Solid 2 (one of his favourite video games), during which the transcendent, spirit-like character runs across a city bridge in the dark of the night, while rain falls through the Burial-esque atmosphere. It is these deeper explorations and understandings that make the themes of his music, and myth, so valuable.
Similar to how writers such as Hemingway used the iceberg theory — only providing a certain amount of explicit meaning while everything else exists below the surface and in the subconscious — Burial projects this also. Each chopped vocal sample, and track titles such as “Loner,” “Distant Lights,” and “Night Train,” all form little pieces of the puzzle. Just as Hemingway’s iceberg posed truthful images of sea fishing and civil wars, Burial writes a gray London world of the “homeless” and “rival dealers.”
A complete ghost wouldn’t hold the attention of most. There is no humanity in that. Instead, these tiny fragments form together a kind of a psychoanalytic striptease, whereby glimpses of the hooded figure in your reflection form piece by piece.
“Everyone goes on about themselves, they reveal everything and give it away. It’s an obsession in London, people and the media are too blatant, trying to project this image, prove themselves and trying to be something. They should just hold back a bit, it’s sexier.”
There is a unique quality when talking to people about Burial; a kind of underlying shock despite his acclaim. Without the dancefloor rhythms for DJs or regular radio rotations, his music spreads the ol’ underground way — through eclectic record shop owners, internet forums, or simply when someone plays a track on the car ride home from the party and it blows you away. It reminds me of Ken Kesey’s saying: “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.”
Like any great myth, the longer it exists and is left to ricochet in a perpetual rumour mill of anonymity, the stronger it becomes. But there is another, perhaps less spoken of aspect that helps us understand the myth of Burial in a broader context.
The Death of Rave
Due to both his personal afflictions for electronic music’s pastimes, and the metamorphic commercialisation of electronic music in the early ’00s, Burial’s music has remained musically and conceptually defined as “post-rave.” Burial’s adoration for the “glory days” of the UK’s rave scene is obvious, inspired by the likes of A Guy Called Gerald, Foul Play and Omni Trio. However this was not born out of his own golden rave experiences, but his older brother’s. Like an old tribe telling stories around the campfire, Burial would hear the stories of wild rave parties and get given CDs to listen to while he slept.
Burial was of a new era, a younger rave generation no longer associated through first-hand experience, but through the culture, folklore, and — like Burial himself — bus rides to school listening to DJ Hype. Like his own music, it seems Burial’s love was built, to an extent, on this kind of ethereal myth.
“I’ve never been to a festival. Never been to a rave in a field. Never been to a big warehouse, never been to an illegal party, just clubs and playing tunes indoors or whatever. I heard about it, dreamed about it…”
This post-rave aspect was reinforced by the fact that, despite his inspirations, Burial’s music didn’t sound like rave either. It wasn’t party music, but the afterword. The sparingly explored sounds and sonic reflections of what came after it; the all-too-real comedown where inner city realities seep back in.
The utopian futures envisioned by the early rave scene had many believing it was going to change everything. But by the mid-2000s, this dream, and rave as it was formerly known, was dead, and UK club music had gone in a vastly different direction. In the way Boards of Canada made you painfully nostalgic for things you never knew, Burial was a mourning place to both the past, and what the past had become; a twisted, tortured love-child of what is, and once was.
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This was explored in the late Mark Fisher’s book, Ghosts Of My Life, which examines creative works through the lens of “hauntology.” A form of postmodernist thought, hauntology is a mourning for a promised future which never came to exist. Fisher, who also interviewed Burial, explored this kind of paradoxical nostalgia — the grievance of a future out of reach — and said hauntological art such as Burial’s represented a refusal to give up on those futures.
“Burial’s London is a wounded city, populated by ecstasy casualties on day release from psychiatric units, disappointed lovers on night buses… [He] is haunted by what once was, what could have been, and — most keeningly — what could still happen. The album is like the faded ten year-old tag of a kid whose rave dreams have been crushed by a series of dead end jobs,” he said.
Fisher said hauntology can also refer to re-emerging aspects of the past “as in the manner of a ghost,” fitting to Burial’s own references to angels and the supernatural throughout his catalogue (e.g. “Street Halo”). Furthermore, the shape-shifting, genderless vocals form a ghost-like feeling throughout his tracks, such as “Near Dark,” where a Ne-Yo sample “I can’t take my eyes off you…” hauntingly blankets over London’s sonic pulse.
Burial has spoken of his own love for ghost stories. He once cited M.R. James, which his dad read to him as a child, as a major inspiration outside of music for worldly storytelling, stating, “Urban legends get woven so you’re unable to be sure it’s untrue.”
Another hauntological element adopted by Burial is the use of static and vinyl crackle. Fisher claims this clear testimony to the past creates a kind of atemporality where “our future is looking increasingly like our past, which now looks like our future, which looks increasingly like the past…” If rave was officially dead, then Burial was its spirited afterlife.
A Brave New World
Years on and Burial is no longer the youthful rebellion. Post-rave is itself now “post,” and just as dubstep’s underground origins morphed into Skrillex chart-toppers, Burial’s musical antithesis was a sign of things to come. The “big three” major labels are Herculean in scale and scope; product placements and social media promotion are the new norm; and an artist’s “image” counts for more than it ever has. It dawns the question of whether an artist can even take the hidden path in today’s music climate.
Many inspired by Burial — most famously James Blake and Ellie Goulding (who called him an “all-time hero”) — have shaped the sounds of the 2010s and beyond, and some electronic successors will always, to an extent, keep the spirit alive — even if one must dig deeper and deeper to find it.
By avoiding the limelight, Burial has, paradoxically, branded an image that labels spend millions in marketing and media campaigns trying to accomplish. And with a maintained anonymity to the present-day, nothing has shattered the years of folklore and idealised perceptions — no scandals, no celebrity girlfriend, no camera-worn paparazzi shots of him walking to the supermarket. Just tunes.
The irony of hindsight is — regardless of motive — this has only ever worked in Burial’s favour. The less people knew, the more intrigue grew. Who knows how different things would be if his discography was met with world tours, photoshoots and a New York Times bestselling tell-all autobiography. Would the worship hold equal weight?
Outside of the still existing, cult-like fandom, the general public’s fascination seems to have finally worn off. For diehard fans, sporadic releases and nothing more are something they are well accustomed to. For casual listeners, perhaps Burial is already a relic of the past, of an era that once was — similar to his own emergence a generation ago. Soon, all that may remain, are the stories, legends and myths.
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