Burial Embodies the Mysterious Producer Concocting Transportive Cyberpunk Worlds
Near future South London underwater. You can never tell if the crackle is the burning static off pirate radio or the tropical downpour of the submerged city out of the window.
Electronic musician Burial (William Emmanuel Bevan) creates music with a slew of poignantly arranged wisps, hard grooves, and beat breaks. Think crackles, corrupted pop vocals, video-game sound samples. The dreary emotional detachment of an empty city at four in the morning.
Sudden sonic shifts break into silence, pausing. The Sound of Nothing. Moments later, bleary-eyed, soaring synths. A jungle beat.
Burial is an artist capturing withering urban decay. It’s wounded, electronic post-industrial, and even post-modern, eschewing the system of dopamine hitting drops and fist-pounding exhilaration. Although a forebear of dubstep, the secretive South Londoner would never perform on a stage.
The Birth of Cyberpunk Music
The futuristically fascinated noir-worlds of 80s sci-fi birthed a diverse variety of artistic subgenres. Although originally a literary field, cyberpunk’s societally inquisitive lens quickly propagated into various mediums. With its technologically founded outlook, the synth became the preferred sound medium of choice.
The moment Vangelis’ sweeping synths open Bladerunner, the dystopian world found a sound signature. The main title track shares many hallmarks of a Burial song: nervous rhythms and haunting vocals filled with ghostly clicks and momentary ruptures. Vangelis’ seminal album bursts with a deranged terror.
On the track Tales of the Future, an Egyptian vocal screeches, nearly rupturing at the seams–humanity’s agony condensed in a post-industrial cage. Come Down to Us, from Burial’s Rival Dealer, buzzes with the same traumatic yelps, analogously founded in a loosely-Arabic beat. The parallel doesn’t function exclusively from sonic analogies. Both albums create tormented images of future existence.
It’s no coincidence that famed British documentarian Adam Curtis spoke enthusiastically of Come Down to Us:
That song is saying, it’s really frightening to jump of the edge into the darkness. Both when you fall in love with someone, and when you want to change the world. And it depends whether you can live with the fear or whether you really want the thrill of it. Or whether you retreat into the world you’re happy with. And I think that’s why it’s a work of genius. He’s got it, it’s the mood of our time that we’re waiting for. He’s way ahead of our time, an epic emotional artist.
Soundtrack of The Moment
Curtis’ documentary HyperNormalisation examines systematized control. He proposes that over the past decades, politicians, economists, and corporations have constructed a globally bound “fake world.” The puppet masters control society on strings. Acts of subversion are careful constructions, malleable shaping of the future. The world is becoming increasingly dominated by technological utopia.
Four of Burial’s tracks appear in the film, including the excellent Truant. At 6:45, a gorgeous development occurs–one of Burial’s most moving. Leading to this moment, a transfigured vocal sample declaring “It seems to go on” repeats among anxious snares and despondent crackles. Then, it fractures. An orchestral, celebratory synth strips away the angst and soars, a rare witness of hope in Burial’s low-spirited universe.
Burial constantly operates on such unexpected yet evocative shifts. The music oozes and wobbles, a liquid grey stream pouring off of cement pathways. His persona is the same. He’s mystifying, lurking in the dimly lit background.
Burial’s Mysterious History
Burial’s first album, self-titled Burial, was immediately met with acclaim. The Wire named it the record of the year. NME immediately placed it into the top 500 albums ever released. Despite all the media attention, no one in the press knew the man behind the music. Operating in a fashion only possible during our modern technological era, William Emmanuel Bevan sent his recordings anonymously to the label owner of Hyperdub.
Only after his second album did Bevan reveal his identity by uploading a selfie to MySpace.
Bevan’s fascination with the technological landscape also manifests in the samples he utilizes. Archangel, one of his most well known songs, includes a prominent sonic clip from Metal Gear Solid 2. Come Down to Us, previously mentioned, utilizes vocals from the sci-fi film Communion. The track Untitled, from the same album, borrows from Alien 3 as well as Inland Empire.
His utilization of materials from such artistic grounds establishes the surreal, twisted nature of his music. Just like Vangelis’s synths in Blade Runner, Devan creates worlds not constituted in our precise existence, just slightly bent out of shape.
The escapist nature of Devan’s music also borrows from the traditions of 90s UK rave scene. Burial’s sound is a post-rave departure. Rather than encouraging the listener to disconnect through dance, Burial facilitates release through rhythmic pulsations inside the mind.
Kudwo Eshun summarizes the link between cybernetics and raver culture in his essay Abducted by Audio:
I’m interested in how the feedback between the toxic drives and the drug-tech interface, the narco and the sonic, spiralled into a dark side. Basically, I’m really interested in the dark side of rhythmic psychedelics. Those tend to be the most gripping kinds of music: they abduct you, sounds fall through your body, sound snatches you away, beats ambush your head and they drag you away into another place.
The subliminal effects of Burial’s beats are exactly what enables powerful immersion in his world, a world that shares much with other aspects of the mixed-media cyberpunk universe. Interlaced with distrust and longing, it is gripping oppression, living in a system that we recognize but can’t control.