Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Here’s something I wasn’t expecting to write a month ago: ‘Rival Dealer’, this year’s stocking filler from Burial is warm, compassionate, and a glittering cry out against alienation and isolation. It’s not quite an entire overhaul of the textures of rain-soaked council estates to which his sound is indebted; nor should it be reduced to a “Burial does R&B and drum machines” outing. The boundlessness and possibility present at every turn speaks to a release that – hinted at further in that heartfelt text to occasional envoy Mary Anne Hobbs – reaps the rewards of the shift to long-form combative moods post-‘Untrue’, and it’s the most meaningful collection of music he’s ever released.
There’s no doubt that many a forum-dwelling Burial fan – those either turning out lovingly made Youtube vids or continuing troll-ish demands for his already-revealed identity – crave a repeat of the roundedness of ‘Untrue’ (at the time described by some as the first “coffee table” dubstep record). But the years since 2007 have been about moving into more fractured and expressive terrain through EP and 12” releases, or to steal from one of the voices on Come Down To Us, to take a “…step into the unknown”. First were the womb/tomb whispers of 2011’s Massive Attack remixes, and most significantly on last year’s ‘Kindred’ EP. Hearing the 10-minute title track’s machinic thrust for the first time was a revelation: this was the most confrontational he’d yet dared to sound. Not merely the same old Burial going on a bit longer, what was striking was how this new period built from his familiar toolkit of vinyl crackle and rainfall and incorporated it like punctuation marks or needlework patching together these expansive pieces.
Without these developments, albeit ones that had started to plateau on last December’s ‘Rough Sleeper/Truant’, it’s more difficult believing Burial could have taken on the task of ‘Rival Dealer’. Many Burialisms are present and correct, but he conjures them like an old master now. In another league to Kindred, Rival Dealer goes flying out the blocks, a breakbeat ravaging at hyperspeed, and would fit comfortably on Wipeout's famed soundtrack. Near the close of Come Down To Us and prior to the final speech, we’re transported inside a car as rain patters at the window: the cocoon-like inimacy it conjures has never sounded so moving. Four Walls had fired off blurts from car alarms, but they glisten with a newfound naturalism when they pop up in interludes here. He’s long been famed for his anything-goes sampling, but there’s still a touch of witchcraft in how he moulds the title track out of Jimi Hendrix, the ‘Trespass’ OST and the guy who sang the ‘One Tree Hill’ theme.
‘Rival Dealer’ needed to retain the skeletal essence of the Burial sound, otherwise its shock of the new might have been too great. But undoubtedly the key is the simple quest for sexual and personal revelation that ‘Rival Dealer’ sets out on. It’s delivered by a medley of assembled voices across the 30 minutes: “This is who I am…”, “It’s about sexuality, it’s about showing the person who you are”, “Excuse me, are you lost?”. We all know and love the voices that crop up on past releases, borrowing from Ghost Dog, Alien 3 and Metal Gear Solid to name a few. But on his self-titled debut these fit far more into a hardcore continuum thread of being there for the sake of sounding eerie or fucked up. On ‘Rival Dealer’, their presence has a purpose.
On to those drum machines. Quite a few people probably laughed when Hider first starting wiggling its derriere to those tinny bass-snares. Fair: it’s a logical reaction to what on closer inspection turns out to be one of the year’s most glorious sonic surprises. Hider and Come Down To Us’s click-tracked remnants of bleeding heart Europop and let-the-choir-sing R&B show Burial embracing the hopeful message fully, and without them that matured use of vocal narrative would veer toward pretension. Nothing screams positivity and self-belief like ‘80s chintz and a poptimistic chant to the heavens; Burial knows this as well as anyone.
There’s no doubt the final voice on ‘Rival Dealer’ is the most profound, with a transgendered person talking free of self-persecution after years of turmoil. But it’s the next part of the speech that really reverberates: “So this world that we imagine in this room, might be used to gain access to other rooms, to other worlds, previously unimaginable”. ‘Rival Dealer’ becomes not just about beating the bullies, but transcending their level entirely. Near enough all of Will Bevan’s previous work has taken place in the hood-up-head-down paranoia of late night streets, but for the first time by this EP’s close, you sense a blue swell of approaching light. A new day is coming and anything’s on the cards. Come join us.
Hyperdub released the 'Rival Dealer' EP on the 16th December 2013.