Review: Burial – Rival Dealer (Hyperdub)

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Those who have illuminated many a solitary dawn with Burial have boarded that well-known nightbus to nowhere on the winding journey of introspective disharmony. Fraught with bass-tripped potholes, imaginary vocals, garage enemas and specters of speaker stacks, the trademark genre tremors constitute a much-imitated, semi-precious craft.

But it’s over six years since William Bevan first torpedoed genre perceptions with the tumultuous release of Untrue in 2007. Feeding a public hungry for blue notes and soundtracks for urban anomie, the world has come to expect big things from the man they call Burial. People are clamouring for more as they seek to deconstruct their own meaning of his music beneath the waves of white noise. Coming almost exactly a year after his last offering, Truant/Rough Sleeper, the release of three-track Rival Dealer proves that the world’s appetite for staring out of rain-soaked windows is far from staved.

The titular opening track forms a brooding nocturnal preamble that’s decidedly more upbeat and linear than what we have come to expect. What rolls forth is a broody, throwback drum loop underpinning a heady flurry of bellydancer woodwind atop a rather ominous stalker vocal that seems to follow you at every turn; ‘I’m gonna love you more than anyone.’ The amorphous mass graduates into the signature woodblock shuffle we are accustomed to, giving time to breathe a momentary sigh of relief into an out of character ego drop; Lord Finesse’s sample with tongue firmly in cheek – ‘You know my muthafucking style!’ It becomes quite clear that these days, that’s far from the truth.

The raver in me welcomes the second suite of the first track, which would be quite at home in any pressure-cooker warehouse, driven harder and faster than you might expect by a 4/4 tribal techno breakdown. This is of course fleeting and melts into the last section, a pretty, dreamy stargaze with a spoken word poem that reaches out to the otherworldly. It becomes apparent from the first track that with this release, Bevan is attempting to push the boundaries of his music beyond the usual perception. He’s expanded his trademark muted palette of blues and greys to harness something a little more florid. Dare we claim that in this latest offering, he’s reaching to the sun rays for inspiration instead of chasing his muse through the rainclouds?

Although passages of his music still have the capacity to surrender all the hairs of your body rigid, skywards – especially the impossibly beautiful shards of light that peep at intervals through the slowly dispersing clouds at the start of ‘Hiders’ – there’s something artificial and hackneyed about the pleasure and empathy to be gained moving into the second track. Perhaps there’s something I’m not getting about the 80s synth drop half way through, but it seems to be clumsily daubed across the sickly horizon like a paint-by-numbers rainbow. There are blackouts to seconds of silence in both the first tracks that seem to appear as an afterthought, adding to the barely-stuck feel. Perhaps that was the intention. It simply comes across as untidy.

I tried hard to erase my Etch-a-Sketch clean of cynicism for a reading of the last track, ‘Come Down to Us.’ I genuinely wanted it to be brilliant. I was soothed to see grace shimmering on the waters of the opening minutes in a lilting sitar ballet that gradually clouds with industrial foreboding. But the jingly jangly optimism refuses to budge. Another substantial, jilting silence – such pretensions; why not just separate them as tracks?- and my house of cards comes falling down. In floats another bunny boiler vocal, pitched to the point of no return, sugared so much as to make your teeth buzz, flanked with an eternity of saccharine express-delivered by a flock of super-good fairies from the Magic Kingdom. ‘You are… my star…’

No amount of vinyl crackles or magical shards of light can excuse the Disney pause for effect before the final wave of happy-ever-after rains over the valley, drowning everyone in more waves of forced happiness than an office team bonding day. ‘You are not alone…. Ever…!’ proclaims a Michael Jackson-esque from beyond the grave in the ominous post break sample – but William, what if we prefer you that way?

If the last track was the final straw for my cynical ears, there were marked warning signs to be heeded in the lead up. It feels like a convoluted message is being pushed forward throughout, a line that has been crossed that charters the album into politicised waters. There seems to be a lot of effort put into explaining ‘this is who I am,’ a lot of onus on sexuality and a lot of one way references to a rather too rosy unrequited love bordering on obsession. Sometimes it’s better not to show your entire hand.

I’m really not sure that this is Bevan’s finest hour. It’s worth noting that perhaps they don’t work for Bevan either – apparently he confessed on Twitter that ‘my Rival Dealer is probably my worst, but I know you guys will love it,’ and then deleted it a couple of minutes later. Bring back the melancholia, the glacial, woodblocked beauty of ‘Archangel’, or even the expansive planes of the abstract yet erudite epic ‘Truant.’

Perhaps the brighter crayons just don’t work as Burial’s muse. Perhaps it’s beginning to lack poignany because we’ve heard it all before? Perhaps we search too hard for meaning and clarity when we listen to Burial. Or perhaps it’s time to take the nightbus to nowhere home on a different route…. 

Written by Kate Stephenson.

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