Angelmaker: Reviewing Burial’s “Boy Sent From Above” (2024)

The album cover for Burial's "Boy Sent From Above", featuring a black X with a white album label.

‘My tunes are a bit rubbish and messy but it’s all I know. One day I want to make a tune people can have a dance to. I’ve tried.’ – Burial

‘I wanted the tunes…to maybe help someone to believe in themselves, to not be afraid, and to not give up, and to know that someone out there cares and is looking out for them. So it’s like an angel’s spell to protect them against the unkind people, the dark times, and the self-doubts.’ – Burial

I’m not sure to what extent the readers of Automachination are familiar with the work of Burial. All things considered, there’s probably a dearth of people on this website with an interest in the UK garage music scene, much less its most esoteric (and aggrandized) figurehead.

Burial is, like Banksy, a kind of pseudo-anonymous mystery artist. When he was nominated for a Mercury prize during the 2000s, popular tabloid The Sun began a national campaign to reveal his name and identity. Unsurprisingly, the artist was unmasked, not as a celebrity pseudonym, but a fairly normal, and recalcitrant young man from Croydon, South London.

Burial’s music is a hybrid of late twentieth century club styles that share a markedly British provenance: specifically jungle, dubstep, acid, drum & bass and UK garage (UKG). He came of age during London’s heyday of urban pirate radio and this perhaps explains the unmistakable overlay of DIY nostalgia in his production style – a kind of bittersweet sentimentality that permeates every part of his work. Listening to a Burial track often makes one wistful, or forlorn.

Burial often takes dance as his point of departure. But Burial isn’t very danceable or DJ-friendly. In fact, it’s the opposite. Whereas other musicians will compose their tracks according to a logic of climax and crescendo, a typical Burial track will often meander circuitously, seemingly without any sense of real predestination. This has the effect of catching the listener short, preoccupying them with various red herrings and sonic non-sequiturs. The effect is moody and disorientating, like stumbling out of a London club at four o’clock in the morning.

Samples and loops are the bread and butter of electronic music. And in Burial’s case, the use of sampling is particularly evocative. As well as clips from other pre-existing works of music, he borrows liberally from film, television and video games. His most popular tune, Archangel, not only samples a tune from R&B singer Ray J, but a title-theme from popular shooter game Metal Gear Solid. On paper, this juxtaposition may sound like nothing more than a whimsical novelty, or a kind of formalist exercise, but in execution is more than sufficiently elegant to be considered a work of art in its own right.

Burial seems more interested in the interstitial than the substantial. If you’ve ever listened to a club mix you’ll know that electronic DJs tend to bookend their tracks with spacey, ambient fluff, as a hiatus for the mix or as an entré to establish ‘mood’. Crucially, these sections are used as musical framing devices, whereas Burial seems more concerned with the practical possibilities of extending this kind of sound into its own discursive exercise.

Sometimes, Burial can be a bit, well, spooky. His breakout album, Untrue has an almost John Cage level of sound design, where random bits of audio intrude, as in an AmPatch field recording, with magical effect. One moment we’re listening to what sounds like bullet shells echoing in a deeply cavernous space. Then it’s the ambience of a highstreet – as if teleported to the centre of a shopping mall or McDonald’s. Anomalous effects, like the sound of bacon frying or disintegrating tape create layers of texture, as in a concrete poem sketching out a virtual experience in what seems like a very strange world.

Burial’s use of vocal samples can be very theatrical, often an index of whatever the artist happened to be watching or listening to at that particular moment in time. Michael Mann’s Collateral. Otomo’s Akira. Bedroom acapellas culled from YouTube. Pitch-shifting and distortion provide for the vocals a phantasmatically sensual character, as if disembodied or on the verge of dissolution. There’s a piquant sense that these voices have been dispossessed, stripped or evicted from their natural surrounds- and this distortion in turn creates a natural sense of expressive alienation, as if what we’re hearing has undergone some torturous process of degradation. Listening to the various vocals and samples at play in a Burial track, we’re led to the inexorable matter of not, as is more commonly posed, ‘where do these sounds come from?’ but rather: ‘what precisely has happened to these sounds?’

A Burial track feels like a home for nearly homeless stuff. Calls resound from an indeterminate space, sometimes answering or seeming to answer their phantom interlocutors. Here, kitschy and clichéd R&B lyrics such as ‘I can’t take my eyes off you‘, become chilling ironies in a seance with ghosts who don’t seem to comprehend they are dead.

And we’re not just talking about supernatural ghosts – there are musical ghosts as well, vestiges of Burial’s childhood, and nostalgia for a music scene that he was too young to experience firsthand. A fairly common interpretation among journalists and fans is that Burial’s signature style is the result of a striving to recreate the childhood experience of listening to his big brother’s homemade mixtapes, divorced from the social nightlife they were intended for, but de-contextualized and re-described in the vivid imagination of a child.

Burial's William Emmanuel Bevan.

In an interview, the superstar producer Brian Eno talked about the first time he heard doo-wop as a child in the fifties. The experience, he said, was so shockingly alien compared to the music he had experienced beforehand, that temporarily he was convinced extra-terrestrials had seized control of the airwaves and were broadcasting messages through his wireless radio. Based on this anecdote, one could hypothesize that Eno has spent the better part of his career attempting to recreate that single delicious moment of artistic incomprehension he experienced as a child.

But for this essay I want to focus on one Burial track in particular. ‘Boy Sent From Above‘, released on February 9, is perhaps some of his best work in a decade and has provided for me a means to re-access an adolescent enthusiasm. Burial essentially soundtracked a decent portion of my teenage years, specifically as a collegiate commuting back and forth from school on the night bus in freezing winter. Because of this, I will always subliminally associate Burial’s music with the florescent strip lighting on the double decker metro from Huddersfield to Holmfirth – the fogged windows and Hogarthian passengers slumped in moquette seats. Art becomes tramped down in memory like chewing gum in a carpet. It’s almost impossible for me to mentally separate the experience of those memories, where life just drones on in a dream-like space, and how Burial’s style can so perfectly seize upon the surreal and Proustian quality of life as a vast and seemingly open form.

Boy Sent from Above begins with the sound of a rattling aerosol can, a sort of unofficial watermark or signature for the producer. You can hear the same hollow rattling on just about all of his releases from the very first EP. Reading comments on the Internet reveals a number of listeners who until recently failed to place the sound or misidentified it as some kind of wooden percussion block.

Then, in amongst some echoey vocalisations, the scratchy sound of a woman (?) saying ‘The angel maker ‘ and ‘the other kids, are they like you?’ The precise origin of this audio clip is still unknown although some Burial aficionado is guaranteed to track it down eventually. Regardless, its inclusion makes one’s hairs stand on end.

When the main vocal refrain kicks in, there’s a barely suppressed sob in the description of someone ‘sent to me from above‘. The vocals are androgynously pitched up to resemble a chipmunk or a Nightcore vocaloid.

A lead synth arp, straight out of a nineties house joint, rears its head alongside some refreshingly clear percussion. The kicks and high hats are so crisp and buoyant in amongst the claustrophobic reverb that you almost don’t hear the lopsided clipping going on with all the loop synchronisation. But here it seems less a case of incompetence than a conscious design choice. Burial tends to prefer things a little lo-fi and rough around the edges, perhaps as a token of the Bedroom DJ tradition. Vaporwave pioneer James Ferraro or the late Bryn Jones would be similar cases. The chat tends to fill up with people complaining about Burial sounding technically incompetent or amateurish. The B-side to BSFA in particular got a critical shellacking for its lopsided percussion loops. But speaking from personal experience, there’s a world of difference between a producer who deliberately incorporates imperfections and a guy who just doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.

The music stops and starts as if considering where to go next. There’s exhaling. Some muffled vocalisation. I can make out a strange, stuttering sound that I initially thought was sampled from Arca’s Xen (2014) but could also be from The Age of Love’s 1990 self-titled. As it builds, BSFA seems to bear more than a few superficial similarities to Thomas Heckman’s popular 1998 acid-techno track Amphetamine, although it’s possible that this is merely a case of déjà entendu. A number of droning synth bassnotes sweep in, punctuated by a rather disarmingly humourous, hip hop record scratch. The drums re-enter and the record starts to gather momentum. The composition, like the robot from The Iron Giant seems to be re-assembling itself -putting itself back together. We are experiencing a kind of explosion in reverse.

Suddenly the evanescent synths get more complicatedly grand. The melody begins to resemble something from a smoky Italodisco club in Zagreb. What a treat! This is an almost entirely new kind of vibe from Burial. Could this be the first ‘proper’ dance number he’s ever made? It’s certainly his most explicitly danceable since 2013’s pugilistic Rival Dealer. And Rival Dealer was hardly so airy and optimistic as what’s on show now.

The album cover to Burial's 2007 album, "Untrue", depicting a pencil sketch of a meditative man.

And then, ecstasy, the synths rearranging into an electro synth pop groove like something from the heydey of Giorgio Moroder. It’s a really upbeat, almost glamorous kind of transition, yet retains all that brooding melodrama from before. The chorus picks up again, but now changed in its context. More direct – more declamatory. Then, another disarmingly comic effect, an orchestral ‘stab/hit’ preset that sounds like the ‘tutti’ padsound from the Roland JV synthesiser. You might remember it from Britney Spears’s monumental single ‘…Baby One More Time‘ (‘Hit me baby one more time – JANG!‘).

And then, the beat stops (again). The sound of ice rattling in a glass cup. A gurgling like wind through fan blades. A barley legible conspiracy of voices with different layers of effects. The secondary synth motif, sans the lead, picks up where it left off, strikingly plaintive in its minimalism after all the blitz. The ‘sent from above’ refrain is reintroduced and then, for about thirty seconds we’re allowed to linger within a glossy chamber-music ambience that puts one in mind of Tim Hecker or Philip Glass.

After that the electropop beat returns, presaged by some synth trills and woah, oh woah vocalisations. All the various motifs and audio samples resume as a pageant of calling and responding in complex syncopation. More and more fills abbreviate the drum patterns. Risers terrify the eardrum. Suddenly the whole thing seems to just disintegrate like a cobweb.

The rattling aerosol returns. The sound of a police siren. And then the track pivots to something completely different. A kind of jittery trance joint sampling Harumi Shinada’s 1984 postpunk single ‘Midnight Boy‘. The hats and the bassline remind me of some of the best of Underworld, KLF and Future Sounds of London. One guy on Reddit seems convinced that the drums are sampled from Outlander’s Vamp from 1991. At the moment I’m of the opinion that the altered drums and bass are taken from F.U.S.E.’s 1992 record Substance Abuse (and the rabbit hole goes deeper). This begs the question: just how much of Burial’s music proportionally consists of samples? Some have supposed that it’s actually 100 percent audio collage without a single freshly recorded note. But it would be difficult to verify this without asking the man himself.

At this point the track has shed all of its earlier motifs and pretense of continuity. It’s as if someone has suddenly switched the radio to a different station. The aliens are now broadcasting on another signal. Some grainy hip-hop MC lyrics cut into the mix chanting ‘Go back, rewind it, find it, analyze and criticize it‘. A chipmunk reprimands us to adjust the ‘radio frequency’ and then, in a surge of compressed static the song abruptly fizzles out in a glorious anticlimax.

You might suddenly feel the need to recuperate. It’s as if one were temporarily in the ghostly shoes of the main character from Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void as a disembodied consciousness swooping through tenement walls. It’s like surfing channels or watching your life flash before your eyes. Imagine Vito Acconci and Muslimgauze in the Hacienda. Tarkovsky’s Solaris as soundtracked by The Prodigy.

I love this track because it’s so gloriously catchy and strange. There’s something deeply pathological about the way Burial pours his biography and obsessions into his music. But he does it in such a way that the work’s individualistic character seemingly captures or reflects something of the world at large, or society as a whole, which is impossible. If an artist can lead us to see ourselves within a singularly individual portrait, then it’s only because that artist possesses great skill or facility. Somehow Burial’s nostalgia becomes my nostalgia – becomes all of our nostalgia – his longing becomes all our longing.

I’m happy to see Burial continuing to evolve as an artist. Some true believers will find the recent stylistic developments discouraging. A contingent of Burialheads would prefer the maestro to return to the elegiac garage-sound which first established his reputation on Untrue. But to my mind this is the best he’s sounded in years. Retro? Maybe. But a million miles from the chic retro kitsch of acts like Daft Punk or, at one time, Oasis. It’s nostalgia possessed with a synthesising sense of purpose that forges into the future.

Burial’s great gift is the ability to create pieces of music that seemingly have a mind of their own, and appear to think and change and rethink themselves as they happen in real time. In this sense he’s a bit like Robert Bresson, the filmmaker whose (self) possessed camera could transform audiences into the impossible observers of their own (un)self-conscious minds. Or John Ashbery, the New York poet whose intimate, meditative voice could lead a reader through a whole perambulation of strange effects and digressions in order to get where he was going.

If you haven’t listened to any Burial then I would recommend starting chronologically with his self-titled LP and working on from there. This, in order to better appreciate his artistic development. Personally I find his Rival Dealer EP from 2012 to be his best and most ambitious project (and, rather bizarrely, it also happens to be a favourite of terminally gloomy documentarian Adam Curtis). But some Americans are bound to struggle with the heavily European sound-pallete. Oldsters may even be revolted (or enchanted) by the reminiscences of nineties club culture. But if, on a winter’s night journey, you ever find yourself in need of something to listen to, it doesn’t get much better than Burial.

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If you enjoyed this review of Burial’s Boy Sent From Above, consider supporting us and get patron-only content on our Patreon page. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a roast of white supremacist Jared Tayloran analysis of the Roman mythos in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and an examination of blockchain and cryptocurrency from the standpoint of socialism.

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