On today's episode: London electronic-y producer guys!
Burial is an interesting story because, for a long time, nobody knew who was behind the music. And for someone to remain actually anonymous in the internet age is quite a feat. It's good fun for someone to make such clearly passionate music as Burial's and then refuse to be identified. It gives the music an even greater mystery — as if this music didn't sound completely from outer space already. Eventually, he couldn't play the role of the British electronic Jandek forever and his identity was revealed. Google for more info, because it's been reported on ad nauseam ever since this first album gained some critical recognition. What is the music like? Well, being recorded in the first half of the 2000's, a lot of people would identify it as dubstep. Because "dubstep" has a lot of connotations these days, I suggest looking at the wiki page for a general idea of how the term differs from what this music is and what most Americans (myself included) understand the term to mean. Manipulated vocal samples, dark, moody, repetitive keyboard riffs and scattering drum breaks give way to purely ambient sounds, basically. This is indeed a strange world that Burial conjures up; one where there is room for Eno-inspired, strictly ambient tracks like 'Night Bus' to coexist right next door to skittering and buzzing atmospheric two-step like 'Southern Comfort.' This is probably Burial's most consistently dark piece of work — and that's saying something for a guy who uses the sounds of pouring rain and deep thunder on nearly 85% of his songs. Key tracks: the short ambient pieces 'Night Bus' and 'Forgive' and the wonderfully tense 'Distant Lights.'
Burial — Untrue (2007)
Recorded throughout the course of two years, Untrue is the big, grand artistic statement that Burial's first album proposed. But where that album was still a little too fringe-sounding, perhaps still feeling an allegiance to a "scene", some of Untrue could pass for honest-to-goodness pop music. Warped, alien pop music, but catchy as hell nonetheless. Relying more on manipulated vocal samples than ever before, Untrue creates its own little world where dubstep is the soundtrack for a perpetual, but inexplicably gorgeous grey-tinged horizon that never fully disappears; just simply becomes more brilliant or less defined as the score dictates. It's fifty wonderful minutes of an artist coming into their own and painting his first sonic masterpiece in one of the most rewarding ways I've ever heard. Key tracks: the opening trilogy of 'Archangel', 'Near Dark' and the the absolutely stunning highlight 'Ghost Hardware.' Beautiful music.
Burial — Truant EP (2012)
By this point, Burial had moved so far past his initial sound that it's almost hard to call his music dubstep anymore. Only two tracks, but in excess of twenty five minutes in length, it sort of implies a DJ Shadow-influenced dance sound, except without samples. The songs go through movements, break down and build themselves back up again and it's all very tuneful — perhaps surprisingly so. In fact, the second movement of the second track, 'Rough Sleeper', is perhaps the catchiest and/or prettiest thing Burial had done up until that point. As the prologue to last year's masterpiece EP, Rival Dealer, this sets the table perfectly. Key tracks: both are great, but 'Rough Sleeper' is just so damned catchy.
Burial — Street Halo / Kindred (2011/2012)
Two EPs released about a year apart, compiled onto one disc for my convenience. As the proper follow-up to Untrue, Street Halo is perhaps a bit underwhelming because it follows the formula established so closely. But the tunes are still there, so if there's anything noticeable about it, it's that the guy could basically do no wrong in that mode. Kindred is the big step forward and basically where Burial becomes seemingly infallible. Moving through a difficult first movement and hitting a glorious chord change about five minutes in, the title track is the sort of transcendent, otherwordly masterwork that's so good, it doesn't seem initially real. Closing out with a deep house groove on 'Ashtray Wasp', his most ambitious work up until that point, Kindred sets the standard for all subsequent Burial releases. Always dark, always rewarding. Wonderful. Key tracks: the melancholy 'Stolen Dog', 'Kindred' and 'Ashtray Wasp.'
Four Tet — Rounds (2003)
Usually considered to be Four Tet's masterpiece, Rounds is a work of sometimes glitchy, sometimes pretty instrumental sample-based music. In fact, some of it borders so closely to hip hop production, I'm surprised that it slipped through my radar at the time. Have a listen to the dreamy washes of keyboards and chunky manipulated drum breaks on the opener 'Hands' for an idea of what's going on here. Some of its sad loops and big drums remind of Anticon production of the time — the big centerpiece 'Unspoken' for example reminds me immediately of a Them song. Overall, nothing life changing occurs, but I don't think that's the point. It's simply meant to be pleasant listening or to get your groove on to while doing something else. In that respect, mission accomplished. Key tracks: 'Unspoken' and closer 'Slow Jam.'
Cloud Boat — Book of Hours (2013)
A quick description of Cloud Boat, I would say, would be Burial meets Fleet Foxes. Odd combo, you might say, but one listen to the glorious 'Youthern', with its post-dubstep groove and reverbed out passionate harmonies, was enough to convince me. Book of Hours, with its washed out white on grey cover art perfectly reflecting what the music sounds like, has to be one of the most unexpected surprises for me recently. Checked out on a whim, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. There is a quietness to this album, an irresistible calmness that I can't fully articulate, but that I absolutely love. There is also an instability to it, as exemplified on the centerpiece 'Pink Grin' (part one, part two). There is just a wonderful uniqueness to this music. For guitar music, it's very electronic. But for electronic music, it's very folky. Absolutely engaging music. Terrific. Key tracks: the seven minute epic 'Pink Grin', 'Lions on the Beach' and the wonderful acoustic closer 'Kowloon Bridge.'
James Blake — self-titled (2011)
Perhaps the most singer/songwriter-y of the London dubsteppers, James Blake is a really interesting fella. His early singles and EPs, some released while he was still a teenager, were strictly dubstep, but when it came time to release a full length, he started focusing more on original tracks where he would sample and manipulate his own voice. He's got a very unique voice already, so when it goes untreated, like on 'Willhelm Scream' or the unlikely Feist cover 'Limit To Your Love', he's pretty charismatic. But when he's playing producer and fiddling around with his own voice, results are similarly engaging and surprisingly soulful. The whole album rides a fine line between catchiness and being too weird for its own good. But, thankfully, it's challenge never outweighs its potential and it makes for one of the most singular albums of the past few years. Key tracks: 'Willhelm Scream' and the two part centerpiece 'Lindisfarne.'
James Blake — Overgrown (2013)
When this second album was released last year, James Blake was officially a rock star, even though he sings on the album's gorgeous opening title track that he wants nothing to do with such conditions. If anything has changed since his first album, it's that his music has become more nocturnal-sounding. It's fine listening whenever you can get to it, but for me it seems more rewarding to play after the sun has set. There is one song here that I just flat out don't like — and yes, it's because of the stupid RZA feature. How mismatched are these two? Otherwise, it's a fine album that is surprisingly darker than its predecessor. Key tracks: the endlessly catchy 'Retrograde' and the epic buildup of 'Digital Lion.'
Mount Kimbie — Cold Spring Fault Less Youth (2013)
And one last late entry into my favorites of 2013 list. With King Krule receiving two stellar feature performances on this album, I really have no excuses for not having this around sooner. Those two tracks — 'You Took Your Time' and the incredible 'Meter Pale Tone' — are good enough on their own to merit purchasing this album, but thankfully, the rest of it is just as strong. There's a burgeoning "post-dubstep" scene where live instruments and original vocals are played and manipulated by the band themselves over scattered breakbeats — and Mount Kimbie is one of the names most closely related to that scene. After properly digesting their two albums (Cold Spring is their second overall) and earlier EPs, I can definitely testify that not many other people making music these days have evolved to sound like the music they are making sounds. Having Mr. Marshall in your corner certainly doesn't hurt in my ears. Key tracks: 'Made to Stray', 'You Took Your Time' and 'Meter Pale Tone.'