Album Review: Burial – Antidawn EP

[Hyperdub; 2022]

Behind the concrete facades, there’s a world of our own making. Why shouldn’t there be? The world has degraded to a dystopian shadow realm that’s made it impossible to talk about the present without thinking of lost futures. Remember when you disinfected each plastic bag after grocery shopping? Can you still recall the smell in the dream you had, where you were dancing in a club? As I write these lines, record numbers of Omicron cases spiral out of control and dancefloors are – again – abandoned. The transhumanist dream of a stable Cyberpunk future, which seemed within arm’s reach throughout the last decade, is now no more than a fractured desire.

The nostalgia for neon lit city streets that lead us to smoke filled bars and clubs has almost become totally interchangeable with the contemporary brutalism that Burial evoked on his 2007 masterpiece Untrue. The nocturnal London of that album was a very real place then, in the mid 2000s, when Shoreditch, Hackney and Dalston still possessed a remnant of grit.

Not all of that world fell prey to commercialism – as time moved on, Burial’s aesthetic was adapted and mutated, most characteristically on 2814’s Birth of a New Day, before it fully blossomed into the vaporwave subgenre dreampunk. Reaching new levels of immersion with blossoming online labels like VILL4IN, the genre re-imagined Burial’s blueprints and club-adjacent impressionistic Cyberpunk landscapes, while Blade Runner 2049 or the somewhat confused-but-beautiful Ghost in the Shell remake dominated on silver screens. Yet, besides all of those trends, the elusive Burial chose obscurity – instead of a follow up to Untrue, the London native concentrated on a number of elongated pieces, releasing them as extended plays of 15 to 25 minutes.

These short, poetic sketches often felt like conscious rejections of the constraints of the longplayer. With both of his albums delivering dubstep tracks interspersed with short ambient passages, the EPs obsessed over the textures between the beats, the journey of keyboard lines and synthetic poetry. Yet they always felt too short, lacking the arc an album provided. So maybe it is ironic intention that Antidawn, Burial’s borderline cinematic long player, is billed as an EP. At almost 44 minutes and rich in complex structures, these five sound collages are state of the art electronic compositions that unite the elements present on his LPs with the vapor-like ambience of his 12 inch output.

It’s also the first time since Untrue that a figure graces the artwork of a new release. Like the ramshackle raver and his cup of coffee, the shamanistic entity on Antidawn seems firmly rooted in contemporary aesthetics, while also a harbinger of a society liberated of structural confinements associated with urban life.

It’s somewhat of an occult idea, these parallel societies that create their own belief systems and ritualistic mythology. But it aligns itself perfectly with the roots of Hyperdub’s labelhead Kode9 and the elusive CCRU’s blend of theory with fiction. And indeed, the entity on this release’s cover could well be from the short “Channel Zero text”, which negotiates media figurations during apocalyptic climate change. Quote:

Blind Humpty Johnson has taught Channel Zero to anticipate an impending interruption of the global media system. He foresees that, as all the signals collapse into noise, a sub-primordial chaos entity will arrive.

The collapse of the social order, inherent to CCRU’s mythological interests and something Kode9 has mischievously hinted at as a running philosophical current beneath his label’s output, finds sonic representations on Antidawn. Here, Burial introduces glimpses and fragments of melodies and songs, interspersed with the crackling and jumping of a record player’s needle or tape distortion. This would normally create a certain nostalgia, our desire for a medium long outmoded, but just as with VOID 004 of the VILL4IN series or Birth of a New Day, the pairing of this analogue deterioration with synthesizers, vocoded vocals and samples of police car sirens, it generates imagery of a landscape that is rejecting time itself, colliding signifiers of nostalgia, zeitgeist and futurism.

Take, for example, the organ lines that haunt the record now and then: they mostly resemble the progressive rock staple of the late 60s, where organs bridged an uneasy, at times even blasphemous, apocalyptic edge: the characteristic instrument of churches now scoring mythological encounters of sexuality and drug consumption. Thus, the organs on Antidawn fulfil a dual role of classicist referentialism. But they remain elusive here, a memory or hologram found in a dingy sidestreet shop, briefly caught like a scent and then vanished back into ether.

Likewise, the lyrics here are sparse: robotic voices indulge in the familiar soul-type tone of Untrue, yet this time they almost take on the role of spoken-word narration. Their ominous lines haunt Antidawn, constantly stuck between plea and prophecy. “I know: it’s coming.” – “I’m not your kind! – “Hush my boy…” – “I am lost…” – “I’ve been in a bad place.” – “Hold me close, make me feel like I’m in love.” – “Night has come!” – “Nowhere to go…” – “Free, beyond everything…” – “Came around my way”, preceded and followed by a childlike giggle. Other times, the voices hum a melody, briefly turning on a single spotlight in the dark, like a film score mixed in, but then diminishing, fading, gone. There’s breathing here, or the simulation thereof – are these protagonists people, homeless and lonely, or robots decommissioned and left to rot? Is there a difference between either?

But no matter the mechanics of those embodiments, there is a lot of consumption here: cigarette lighters cracking, cans being opened and drinks poured, cars and sirens, wind and footsteps in snow, the sound of crickets (or simulation thereof) and flies, laughter and coughing, water dripping and rain pouring… and something that could be knives or coins or something else metallic rubbing against each other. The instrumentation, and thus the very fabric of electronic music, has become somehow infected by urban dwelling: beats are now part of our casual experience, and our everyday has transformed into music. As urban as some of those samples are, the archaic and ancient never seems far away.

Being as elusive as he is, it’s hard to tell to what degree Burial is involved in or familiar with Kode9’s political and philosophical perspectives, but Antidawn could seamlessly function as the extension of music as cloud or virus that transmits itself and infects host bodies. Maybe that’s why there is so little cosmic presence here, Burial favouring instead the emotional, the mundane and the esoteric. In that, it manages to characterize a time and place, similar to how David Bowie’s Low and Heroes encased punk-era West Berlin in amber.

And like in those two albums, these stories, as dense in image and meaning as they come, are personal, and to each listener they will reveal different associations and responses. Even while surgically identifying individual samples and sounds, the impact of the whole is impossible not to get swept away in. Is “Antidawn”, with its coughs, buzzing flies and dark lyrics, a reflection on Corona-era death anxiety, aligning itself with Burial’s reoccurring imagery of lost or stolen dogs that seek shelter and their ‘home’? Is “Strange Neighbourhood” about an actual place, or about generational tug-of-war in an era constantly on the verge of collapse? Is the ending couplet of “New Love” and “Upstairs Flat” the beginning of a love story, or the escape to a nether realm? It’s these tense dualisms that characterise this record – after all, the entity on the cover itself is both characteristically a child and elder, with its white eyes, grim necro get-up and ancient jewellery announcing a power and determination at odds with its meagre frame.

Antidawn is alive, and it expresses itself in those short bursts of iconic moments that shine something back. For example at 4:30 in “Strange Neighbourhood”, when the church organ all of a sudden diminishes into a fairground organ, toying with the juxtaposition of the sacred and profane, humorously playing with the interpretation of music as religious or holy. In the second part of “New Love”, around 5:20, when a voice repeats like a skipping record or magic spell: “Come on, Come on: to me”. When, at the end of “Antidawn”, for a second, heaven opens up and then segues into the bliss of “Shadow Paradise”, and then, at 5:45, the song’s melody suddenly breaks down, only to return slowed down and hideous. And then there’s the way that “Upstairs Flat”, and thus the record, ends with the words “Come and get me”.

Antidawn is many things, but most of all, it is the sound of our lives behind concrete walls and glass windows, on dark streets and in dirty sheets. It breathes, forever encased, in darkness and in light.