Record Rewind: Burial – Untrue3 min read
Reading descriptions of Untrue from other critics is endlessly fascinating, given that Burial himself has described the record as “a glowing, buzzing album”. More than just about any other artist, Burial inspires journalists to write the most verbose copy, speaking of “desolate streets” and “half-remembered dreams”. The overwhelming impression one gets is that his music is cold and isolating, but even a cursory listen to Untrue proves that false. Whilst this album does evoke the same distinctly urban, rainy images as its self-titled predecessor, Untrue doesn’t focus on them. Instead, the album focuses on human connections, and that’s what makes it by far the most important record of the dubstep movement.
Burial’s debut album was excellent, and remains a classic of its genre, but in hindsight it very much feels like the cocoon that Untrue burst from. Many of the same ingredients are there, like the beats constructed from videogame sound effects and what sounds like clattering cutlery, and the chopped up R&B vocal samples. However, whilst the sound may be similar, the atmosphere is not. Like much of early dubstep music, Burial is foreboding and menacing, evoking an urban hellscape not unlike industrial music. The rhythms are jittery, and the basslines are heavy, which all add up to an enjoyable, but hardly inviting musical experience.
Untrue is different. Instead of using them as icing on his gloomy cake, Burial makes his vocal samples the focus of the album. He recorded his friends over the phone, and dove into YouTube acapellas, dredging up many amateur covers of R&B classics. He then pitched these samples far outside of their original range, creating his own cast of voices. He wasn’t the first electronic artist to do this, and most certainly won’t be the last, but no one can manipulate the human voice quite like Burial. He even uses varied enough samples that his tracks have something approaching lyrics. Archangel, the best known track from the album, opens with the verse “holding you / couldn’t be alone / loving you / couldn’t be alone / kissing you”, constructed entirely from chopped up samples of Ray J’s One Wish. It’s emotionally open in a way few, if any dubstep songs are, expressing a palpable yearning and humanity, and it’s this embrace of vulnerability that makes Untrue so special.
It’s very easy to think of music in terms of epochs, defined by popular sounds and genres. From the grunge music that characterised the early 90’s, to the psychedelia of the late 60’s, many eras in modern history can be defined by a specific sound. However, this century has proven harder to categorise, largely due to the sheer speed at which trends shift in the internet age. One potential global shift in sound, is pre-dubstep, and post-dubstep, more specifically, pre and post-Burial. Music released since 2007 has gradually shifted closer and closer to the isolation and heartache his work evokes, to the point where almost all modern R&B and electronic music is influenced by him.
The album that first showed Untrue‘s lineage was xx by The xx. Their ‘guitar and MPC caked in cavernous black echo’ sound very much draws from the same well as Burial, particularly in their use of reverb that doesn’t resemble any physical space, but it’s the dual songwriters’ whispers to each other that demonstrate Burial’s true influence. By placing such warm and open-hearted sentiments against a brooding, minimalist soundscape, the band accomplished a similar feat: they made the emotion all the more palpable. Untrue can be heard in the dubstep-R&B of artists like James Blake and FKA Twigs, and even in the minimalist soul sounds of big-name singers like Miguel and Frank Ocean. Few genres get an album that defines them the way Untrue did for dubstep, but Burial even did the genre one better: he perfected it.