By Joel Elliott | 28 March 2012
DJ/musicologist Terre Thaemlitz laments the erasure of the “hyper-specific” (specifically, queer, regional) origins of house music into a vague, superficially positive and “universal” movement. The same could be said of the increasing dissolution of dubstep into a catch-all term for pretty much all current electronic dance music, in particular its popular association with bass-heavy electronic mush and abrasive oscillators. The co-optation of dubstep may not be as charged with gender politics as that of early techno, but the transformation from the experimental run-off of the streets of South London to “brostep” is still a remarkable death (or burial, ok) of a specific place and time, from which any scene gains both its distinct character and its individually differentiated voices.
In the case of Will Bevan, this may actually be a good thing. The popular notion of dubstep, epitomized by, say, Skrillex, has become so laughably distant from Burial (who seemed carefully out of, uh, step with the movement even from the beginning) that Bevan may actually finally be free of any meaningful association with it. Stretched like taffy, “dubstep” has finally broken off and isolated him, exactly where he wants to be—which is to say, pretty much exactly where he always has been. More abstract electronic artists may be free to speak only in relation to their specific vision, but there’s still the pesky feeling that as soon as you drop a beat in the mix, you bear the responsibility (as both tastemaker and crowd-pleaser, curator and originator) of everyone who gets on the dance floor. Introspection is a hard-fought battle in this kind of music, but if the genre itself erodes, maybe more people will take refuge in it.
Scenes come out of specific places and times, but they congeal only when they represent something general enough to be commonly recognized. This may be why they are so easily co-opted and why such universalizing of trends can seem deceptively egalitarian: if backlash is always elitist, then millionaire musicians can endorse Occupy Wall Street, because who decides where to draw the line? Real “hyper-specificity” is esoteric and inscrutable. Filmmaker/ theorist Hito Steyerl said “the closer you get to something, the less recognizable it becomes,” and while she was speaking specifically to documentary art, the observation seems broadly applicable to most kinds of art in general. Burial’s music is the reduction of a scene into crackles, disembodied voices, and unsequenced shuffles, a city into cracks in the pavement and shards of glass. In getting so close to its source, the music flirts once again with abstraction.
If the static seemed somewhat peripheral on Burial’s previous albums, the three tracks on Kindred position them front and centre even as the peaks carry more momentum than anything else he’s done. Full of false stops and almost uncomfortable moments of near-silence, Kindred condenses swift movement and stagger into a vast poetics of stumbling blindly around in the dark. “Ashtray Wasp” is full of drama, but it’s the drama of random strangers passing each other in the night, all singing to themselves; no one ever gets better, nothing gets resolved. “Loner”’s loops almost push the track into trance territory, but the voices overtop, pushing through one of his more fractured and decaying compositions, hover somewhere in between a sigh and a croon, not even articulating a basic syllable before being thrown into an echo chamber.
The only moment of hope is in the title track, a voice calling out through the oncoming rush of a subway train “Baby you can find the love,” while a grimy beat suggests the statement is more a cry of desperation than a statement of confidence. But the miracle is more in how that single voice gets there, slowly coming together through unintelligible fragments, as if it was constructed from bits and pieces rather than recorded whole and cut up. If dubstep is dead, then Burial is some magnificent tower of dust and light built on the remains. A monument to fragility, but a monument nonetheless.