Features I by I 15.05.16

Burial turns 10: The roots of a dubstep masterpiece

Burial’s self-titled debut album was released on May 15, 2006, and it felt like it had been a long time coming.

We’d already digested the mysterious South London Boroughs EP and were desperate for more. Burial provided the fix, and without giving away any personal details about William Bevan, whose name hadn’t even been revealed yet. There were precious few interviews, and we never got to see him standing behind a pair of decks on an elevated stage at some corporate festival or other. We just got handed vibes, and that’s all we really needed.

In the UK in 2006, dubstep was flourishing but was yet to have its unifying moment. Burial wasn’t even really a dubstep record – it certainly sounded significantly different from the genre-defining work of DMZ, Skream or Benga. But its distillation of elements pulled from UK garage, drum & bass and hardcore felt prescient and shifted the scene’s focus. It gave dubstep a sudden, bright spotlight that allowed listeners without a PhD in bass weight to enjoy these sounds for the first time.

Burial was special because it summed up a lot of unresolved feelings about the British electronic music scene – Simon Reynolds’ patented “hardcore continuum” theory in particular – compiling them succinctly without feeling labored or even particularly intentional. Bevan’s use of space and degraded noise may have simply been a way to cover up his primitive production methods – the album was pieced together with rudimentary wave editor Sound Forge rather than a fully-fledged DAW like Logic or Cubase. His awkward swing may have been a product of his creating the rhythms purely by ear, but they ended up sounding like a perfect continuation of the syncopated sound carried through UK clubs by Omni Trio, Foul Play, Todd Edwards and Groove Chronicles.

A year later, Bevan released Untrue, adding a new layer to the dark, atmospheric stutter that characterized his debut. Draped in robotic vocal hooks, Untrue was a shock to many listeners expecting simply more of the same, but in many ways it continued and elevated the message of its predecessor. He’s never released a full-length since, instead dropping the odd crucial (and sometimes confounding) 12″ on Hyperdub, still retaining the innovative streak that’s characterized his music since the first drop.

To celebrate this milestone in British music, we picked the 13 key influences that helped Bevan create a sound that reminded us of our history while forging a new path.

A Guy Called Gerald
Black Secret Technology
(Juice Box, 1995)

In December 2007, just after the release of his second album Untrue, Bevan spoke to Mark Fisher (aka K-Punk) for The Wire and said he wanted to make something that was “warm, glowing, junglist and garagey”. He referenced A Guy Called Gerald, and the only record he could have been talking about was 1995’s jungle milestone Black Secret Technology. Gerald Simpson is still probably best known for penning acid house classic ‘Voodoo Ray’, but Black Secret Technology helped define a genre, and while it isn’t as glamorous as Goldie’s later Timeless or as high-profile as Roni Size’s New Forms, it still stands as one of the era’s most perfect documents.

It makes sense that Bevan had latched onto Simpson’s skeletal productions and distant vocals – tracks like ‘So Many Dreams’, ‘Finlay’s Rainbow’ and ‘Energy’ are laden with the sort of reverb-drenched hooks that would become his signature.

Burial - Aliens
(James Cameron, 1986)

Bevan’s obsession with the Alien franchise is well documented – he even sampled Elliot Goldenthal’s Alien 3 soundtrack on Untrue’s opening track ‘[untitled]’ – but it runs deeper than simply a few references. In a 2012 interview with FACT, Bevan revealed that his “favorite sound in the world” was “the motion-tracker from Aliens“.

His mission statement was quite simple: “All I ever wanted to do was make tunes that had rolling, garage-y, junglist drums with subs and cut-up singers and some of that motion-tracker thing! Just give me that and I’m happy.”

‘Special Mission’
(From Metalheadz Boxset 1, Metalheadz, 1997)

A track from a Metalheadz compilation released as the label was seen to be dwindling by many listeners might be an odd choice, but plenty of us cherished that distinctive metal box, even if it didn’t ever sit right on your CD shelf.

Talking to Martin Clark in 2006, Bevan credits Digital’s haunting ‘Special Mission’ as the track that made him realize “you could make tunes without being ‘a musician.’” It’s not hard now to hear how Digital’s blend of eerie pads and stuttering rhythms set a young Burial on the right path.

(White Label, 2000)

Bevan has mentioned Lewis Beadle – aka El-B, also (until 1999) one half of pioneering garage act Groove Chronicles – as a primary influence plenty of times, and it’s not hard to hear why. Beadle’s moody, minimal 2-step – best evidenced on 2002’s ‘Buck & Bury’ – is only a few rain and video game samples away from fitting perfectly into South London Boroughs.

It’s El-B’s 2000 bootleg of Brandy’s ‘Never Say Never’ (cleverly title ‘El-Brand’) that Bevan cites as not only the first time he heard El-B, but as the moment that spurred his interest in garage. It makes a lot of sense – Bevan’s sampling of R&B has characterized his whole catalogue, and he’s used snippets of not only Brandy (on 2007’s ‘Unite’ and 2009’s ‘Fostercare’), but Beyoncé, Aaliyah, Ashanti, Ciara and others.

Foul Play
‘Dubbing You’
(From Vol. 2, Oblivion Records, 1992)

Bevan began making tunes in around 1997, while he was still at school, and told Martin Clark that he was attempting to “to get that vibe like Foul Play and Omni Trio”. The vibe he was talking about was popularized by the Moving Shadow label in the mid-90s, and clearly never left Bevan’s field of reference.

Certainly, listening to Foul Play’s 1992 cut ‘Dubbing You’ (which Bevan mentions in that same interview), the links are blindingly obvious. Aside from the twisted, treated vocals in the track’s final third, you can hear how Bevan skimmed ideas from Foul Play’s bizarre structures and complex rhythmic tics.

Burial - London

London has a special significance in Bevan’s music – just look at the cover of Burial, which shows South London from above, to represent “a pirate signal above London, just floating in the air”. “When I’m making a tune that’s what I’m thinking of,” Bevan revealed to Martin Clark, talking about the significance of England’s capital city. “London’s part of me,” he said to Mark Fisher, “I’m proud of it but it can be dark, sometimes recently I don’t even recognize it.”

The ‘Distant Lights’ of Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth, the ‘Night Bus’ that will be familiar to anyone who’s been in London after midnight struggling to get home – these are part of a narrative that is built around and in tribute to London. It might be Bevan’s biggest influence of all.

Massive Attack
(From Mezzanine, Virgin, 1998)

Massive Attack and Burial go together like peas and carrots, and if there’s one song that represents this most of all, it’s 1998’s all-conquering ‘Teardrop’. Better known to most of the USA as “the theme from House“, the dreamy Mezzanine highlight features a memorable rhythm that sounds like a ground zero for Burial.

Bevan samples a hefty portion of the track on ‘Prayer’, but we’d hazard a guess that he’s used that rimshot plenty of times since. Thankfully, the admiration went both ways, and Bevan ended up working with Massive Attack in 2011 on ‘Four Walls / Paradise Circus’.

Burial - McDonalds

Later made even more obvious on Untrue highlight ‘In McDonalds’, Burial’s obsession with lonely London nights stems from the many hours whiled away under the golden arches (before getting on the night bus, obviously), adding an eerie levity to a part of life that would usually be considered completely mundane. He sheds some light on this talking to Mark Fisher, saying that it was part of his exploration of depression, themes of family and vulnerability: “Wanting an angel watching over you, when there’s nowhere to go and all you can do is sit in McDonalds late at night, not answering your phone.”

‘The Hidden Camera’
(From The Hidden Camera, Science, 1996)

You simply can’t talk about Burial’s influences without mentioning Photek. The links are obvious – Rupert Parkes’ innovative use of percussion is as important to Bevan’s sound as Massive Attack, and the small touches in his beats (such as his tendency to reverse sounds to fill gaps, or use ambient recordings) are the blueprint for Burial.

1996’s ‘Hidden Camera’ – which appeared a year later on Parkes’ storied debut full-length Modus Operandi, an album that remains one of UK electronic music’s very best – has been referenced by Bevan as a favorite, but we could have picked any of the early classics. Parkes took a similar collagist route in his productions, blending obscured vocals and distant pads but never losing sight of the percussive drive, blending mood with utility seamlessly.

Burial - Rain

Missy Elliott may not have been able to stand it, but rain is William Bevan’s not-so-secret weapon. It’s on plenty of his tracks, and while he disparagingly shrugged it off as and attempt to “cover up the lameness” of his tunes, it feels directly in line with his themes of depression, loneliness and London. There’s nowt more British than rain, after all.

“I like Blade Runner but I’m only obsessed with one scene in it, the bit where he’s sitting at those cafes in the rain,” he explained to Mark Fisher. “I love rain, like being out in it. Sometimes you just go out in the cold, there’s a light in the rain, and you’ve got this little haven, and you’re hanging round like a moth.”

Rufige Kru
(Metalheadz, 2001)

Goldie’s influence on not only jungle and D&B but British music as a whole is widely appreciated at this point, so it’s hardly surprising that his work under the Rufige Kru moniker made its way to Burial. Bevan cites late-period track ‘Beachdrifta’ as an influence in his interview with FACT: “I listen to that track every day. Nothing can ever take anything away from it.”

It’s not only ‘Beachdrifta’ that we can hear in his productions though, the corrupted sci-fi vibes of ‘Terminator’ and the mind-melting intensity of ‘Darkrider’ feel just as important.

Burial - PlayStation

Sony PlayStation

Like plenty of producers over the last decade, Bevan has been influenced by playing video games almost as much as listening to club music. He memorably sampled the intro of Metal Gear Solid 2 in ‘Archangel’, but it goes far deeper than that.

“A lot of my drums are just people picking up new ammo and weapons in games,” he told Mark Fisher. “I love shells falling to the floor, power-ups, like when you get extra life.” Listen again to Burial and you start to hear these sounds everywhere.

Todd Edwards
(i! Records, 2006)

Every producer working in a garage mode owes a certain debt to Jersey innovator Todd Edwards, but Bevan has often pointed out his appreciation for the producer’s choppy vocals and urgent speed garage rhythms. He cites 2006’s Odyssey as a favorite, and you can easily hear why in its title track, which if you added some video game sounds, vinyl crackle and mysterious pads would sound just like something Bevan could have brewed up.



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