Burial – Untrue Album Review

Cover of Untrue

Burial’s Untrue still stands today as a testament to curious and varied innovations of the 00s

Hyperdub

 November 5, 2007

9.6

Ten years ago, the reclusive Future Garage, Dubstep, and UK Bass pioneer Burial released his sophomore album, Untrue, which still stands today as a testament to curious and varied innovations of the 00s. Place yourself, for a moment, in 2006. You listen to “cutting edge” UK electronic producers: Four Tet, Gravenhurst, Bonobo, Nightmares on Wax, The Bug, Clark—who by this point have been essentially repackaging variations on and expansions of the great innovations of the ‘90s for about 5 years. UK Garage and Two-Step have become tired and ubiquitous. Remember: this is prior to the rise of so-called “hauntological music” like Chillwave or Vaporwave; prior to the exploration and satire of digital music done by artists like Rustie and Hudson Mohawke; and of course prior to the entire rise and fall of Dubstep—underground electronic remains still innocently sincere, only barely corrupted by dirty hands of mainstream appropriation, which still at that time was still mostly restricted to America and France.

This is your context—but seemingly overnight your friends start talking about a new name, Burial, working in some weird underground genre called Dubstep, releasing music on the still-incipient Hyperdub label—you hear his eponymous debut is pretty good, very forward-thinking. The mystery of this nameless, faceless producer intrigues you further: all right, he’s from South London, but what kind of reclusive mad scientist is making these brilliant Downtempo stutter-step beats? A year later, Burial releases an even better, more thought-out LP called Untrue, and that really blows your mind—blows the world’s mind, to the extent that two years later “Dubstep” is being played not as downer music in small, dimly lit underground clubs and warehouses, but at American festivals in front of thousands of black-out-drunk partiers. This is the amazing history of Untrue, an improbable album that set an impossibly high standard for UK Bass.

All of that said, one thing that strikes just about anyone who didn’t hear Untrue until after 2009 is how little it sounds like the American conception of Dubstep: I was playing two of my friends Untrue while driving around New Jersey on a chilly morning this September—they asked what it was, and I said, “The most important Dubstep album of all time.” We were on “Endorphin” by then, so, shocked and confused, one friend said, “But this doesn’t have any wub-y basslines or massive drops or anything like that—this song doesn’t even have percussion. It sounds more like the instrumental to a Frank Ocean song than anything else I’ve heard called ‘Dubstep.’ The tracks that do have drums sound more like Downtempo Drum ‘n’ Bass” But I allayed his confusion with a short explanation of how wildly misunderstood and corrupted the mainstream genre has become.

There are a few telling things about my friend’s assertion, however. First is the subtlety of Untrue: songs like “Shell of Light,” “Archangel,” and the title track all have so-called “wub-y” bass parts—which we should say is called a wobble bass and sometimes a Wonky bass (referring to the late-00s genre). That kind of bass production has been around since the late 90s on early Garage records. The thing is, Burial puts these bass parts in Future Garage aesthetic spaces—they’re engineered with amounts of reverb that do not work in a festival setting, and which you would really only find on ambient records back in 2007. Simply, Burial is using big, muscular dance bass synths and softening them with cathedral-like production spaces, turning them into slight instruments with infectious power.

Secondly, my friend made a good observation in comparing Burial to Frank Ocean, and that says a lot about the reach of the former’s production prowess and influence. Burial’s aesthetic choice to sample obscure R&B vocal parts, chop them up, pitch shift them, and put tons of reverb on them, is almost completely unprecedented (MAYBE Four Tet did it first), but now it’s a universal element of contemporary electronic-based R&B; it was inescapable in basically all Downtempo electronic music from 2010 – 2015; even more abstruse electronic musicians who have nothing to do with R&B or Dubstep started injecting elements of it into their music—listen to any artist on Modern Love, Ninjatune, or Hyperdub after 2008 and you’ll see what I mean.

Lastly, on the percussion, I don’t think Burial’s unstable broken-beat drum parts are entirely original—it seems like a move popularized in electronic music earlier by the likes of Four Tet, Flying Lotus, and Prefuse 73—but after Untrue, it was an inescapable way to program drums. Clark’s Totems Flare uses it from the first track; FaltyDL built an entire career on it; it’s central to Tobacco’s sound even today.

All these specific elements of the Burial sound go to show how important Untrue was after its release up until the present, but it’s worth saying that the album’s importance goes far beyond its influence and cultural significance—it’s also a damn good electronic record in its own right. Its haunting ambience reminds one of dark alleyways and cold, empty city streets—but there remains an inviting warmth to its washing synths, like the soft caress of a properly tailored overcoat. I say overcoat and not “significant other” or “the hand of a friend” because Untrue is a decidedly lonely album, if not a breakup album. It’s an album for wandering between sleeping silver buildings when the night is only illumed by orange lamplight and its reflection in the rain puddles about you. I remember when I first heard it: my dad played it for me back in 2011 while driving me to school at 6am—we sat in silence, amazed how well the album fit the context. Today I still listen to it sometimes while walking home late at night, other times while reading by the grey sunlight of a rainy day. It will always have a spot in my memory, and even if I don’t return to it for months, it will bring me to the same mental space it did years ago.

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