Letting Randoms In: On The Music Of Burial

by Thomas Brett

I don’t really go on the Internet, it’s like a Ouija board, it’s like letting someone into your head, behind your eyes.  It lets randoms in.” – Burial

Although I’m clearly a few years behind the curve with this particular bit of music news, I’ve been thinking about the music of acclaimed London-based producer Burial lately and what it is that makes it work so well for me.  Burial, whose real identity as William Bevan was unknown until quite recently, makes moody and evocative underground electronic music that blends dubstep, garage, and ambient influences into a signature sound.  Unlike a lot of electronic musicians, Burial doesn’t sequence his work as MIDI data, choosing instead to arrange audio samples using simple audio editing software.

For me, there are two striking aspects of Burial’s music.  The first is the music’s rhythms.  In contrast to a lot of electronic dance music that has sharp, squared-off and quantized edges to its beats, Burial’s rhythmic textures are a little more off-kilter and therefore interesting.  In interviews Burial has spoken about his intuitive beat-making process.  Working with the software program Sound Forge, he lines up his drum samples one at a time just by looking at the waveforms and without relying on quantization to snap everything to a grid.  He works, as the old saying goes, by feel.  This working method produces skittering, choppy rhythms that sometimes seem a fraction of a beat short of a 4/4 meter, making them sound as they are subtly hicupping their way forward in time.  You can hear this time sense on the piece “You Hurt Me”:

In 2007, Burial spoke with Mark Fisher in the Wire (December 2007) about the influence of early 1990s UK garage music on his approach to rhythm and drumming in his tracks:

“With garage the drums are taken back, they’re quite soft, it’s more about being slinky.  They’re like a fishbone, a spine, an exoskeleton that cradles the sounds.  It’s not about the deepest kick or biggest snare.  The drums are more about trying to thread sounds and vocals together, they flicker across the surface of the tune, it circles around you, it’s not just chopping you up, it’s not about the sounds being big.”

Another attractive aspect of Burial’s music (and a feature of garage music too) is its use of looped and re-pitched sampled voices veiled in delay and reverb.  These voices are always just beyond intelligibility–their edges blunted and blurred so that they almost seem to be saying something coherent but never do. In this way, the voices mix seamlessly with the other ambient textures in the music and help draw the listener inwards.  You can hear this sensibility on the pieces “Forgive” and “Broken Home”: