In the 14 years or so since he released the Mercury-nominated Untrue, it’s fair to say the Burial hasn’t exactly followed the path you might have expected from that point. Rather than building on that album’s success by continuing to work in the same vein, he has largely eschewed the album format. Instead, he has focused his work on singles and EPs, often releasing them with no fanfare to a schedule of his own choosing. The freedom this approach has given him has allowed him the space to experiment. Whilst all of his releases have borne his unmistakable DNA, each has explored different avenues within that wider sound.
His most recent outings have all been at the higher tempo end of the spectrum, at times breaking into a clubby euphoria a world away from the minimalist 2-step of his first couple of albums.
As with all of his post-Untrue output, the question on first listening is which Burial do we get on Antidawn? The answer is a surprising one. It is a more restrained, meditative and inscrutable iteration of his work than he has produced of late. At first, the EP almost sounds like a parody of his work. All of the hallmarks of his music are there: distorted snippets of female vocals, the hiss and crackle of worn records, organic found sound recordings of the human and natural world, skittering drum patterns that drop in and out, keys and synths beamed directly in from vintage garage and rave music.
But as the record progresses, the suspicion grows that this is an entirely intentional act of self reference on Burial’s part. Whilst all of these elements are familiar, they are never quite deployed as you would expect. It is almost as though he is playing with the listener, inviting us to see the familiar; teasing us, but then taking the songs in a different direction. Although the tendency towards wild gear changes within the space of a song are not new to his work, here they are taken to their logical extreme. At times, the songs sound less like coherent songs, and more like collages – the different sections stitched together but with the joins still visible. It gives the listener the sensation of standing outside a nightclub, snatches of sound escaping when the doors open to admit guests, then mingling with the sounds of the world outside.
Rarely is momentum allowed to build. If drums do appear, they promptly disappear again before anything like a rhythm has been properly established. The other elements of the music enjoy similar limited tenure on the tracks. He has never been an artist for the standard verse-chorus format, but here the strongs slip even further loose of the confines of songwriting. At times it feels more like an ambient soundscape or a soundtrack than a piece of standalone music. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), what is impressive is how he is able to create such strong moods and emotions from such fragmented offerings. There is a strong seam of longing and isolation running through all the tracks here.
There is also a strong sense of the devotional. Dance music has often flirted with the sound of gospel, and there is something about the way that organ sounds combine with voices at points on this record that gives the music an almost liturgic feel. On ‘Antidawn’, there is even a synth sound that calls to mind chanting monks. There is nothing explicitly religious in the lyrics, but it does create an atmosphere of secular worship. This is music for indulging thought and reflection, not instigating dancing.
As a result it is a less immediate, in some ways frustrating record than I was expecting. On my first listen, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was this the sound of someone running out of creative steam? Subsequent listens have challenged this assessment. The songs’ refusal to erupt into dance floor bangers, their seemingly arbitrary twists and turns, their resolutely downbeat, melancholic atmosphere; all of these things which held me at arm’s length initially instead contribute to a rich and beguiling listen. Whilst they defy easy categorisation and explanation – what they are about exactly, I don’t know – they do an amazing job of crafting moods and emotions and a whole sonic landscape for the listener to get lost in. It will take time to get a sense of where this ranks amongst his output as a whole, but it is certainly a worthy addition to it.
Words by Will Collins