With Boomkat busy patting itself on the back over its Mark Leckey-curated Death of Rave imprint topping its year-end charts while I endlessly watch each rain-soaked vid coming out of the second half of that Aphex Twin set in Houston last weekend, already the idea of trying to capture the state of the rave reanimation now taking hold on both sides of the Atlantic seems naive at best. At this point in its ten-year evolution--if we are to pinpoint V/VM's Death of Rave releases as a starting point of sorts for the nostalgia of past lives unlived--it's rather unwieldy to trace the many tentacles of this ever-evolving movement/trend/cliche/whatever. Nonetheless, as previously mentioned, the year's end brought us two major exclamation points on the rave voyeur front. Arriving a little under a month after Lorenzo Senni's Persona was another holiday-timed surprise EP release by Burial.
A trend in anything but name, it first started in December 2012 with the surprise "Truant" b/w "Rough Sleeper" EP, marked a new stylistic and compositional approach for the reclusive producer. Having spent six years as a recording artist producing music whose DNA owned more to UK Garage than the Dubstep movement it was associated with--though Burial's downcast, rainy atmospherics reverberated with Dubstep's early stoicism quite nicely--as the new decade ushered itself in without any solo Burial releases since 2007's landmark Untrue album, the 2010s seemed to provide Burial with a new stylistic and compositional freedom he had barely hinted at in his 00s output. While he had been playing with longer track times in both the "Steet Halo" (2011) and the 11-minute "Ashtray Wasp" (2012) releases, perhaps some of the most dancefloor-ready material he's ever released, both tracks on the Truant EP were well over ten minutes and followed a nonlinear structure as each piece felt stitched together from smaller parts. Recurring motifs popped up here and there and a general directional sense not only kept both pieces from basic compositional navel gazing, but in fact, making for the most exciting and FWD material since Untrue five years earlier.
Also present on the Truant EP was a more saccharine, if not slightly cornball sensibility that drew from distorted Top 40-ish sounds, like arena-ready synths and soaring vocals that remained androgynous as ever. This earnestness was indeed a sign of things to come when Burial again surprised released the landmark Rival Dealer EP in December 2013. Clocking in at nearly thirty minutes, the EP worked as a whole piece, with two ten-minute-plus pieces bookending the brief but emotionally devastating "Hiders." Perhaps most notable of all was that this release had the feeling of a complete narrative arc, with no single piece coming close to matching the euphoric melancholy achieved by listening to all three songs sequentially. And unlike recent one-off singles "Temple Runner" and Zomby-collaboration "Sweetz," "Rival Dealer" not only maintained the measured of pacing achieved on Truant, but also introduced a number of new rhythmic devices and the most emotionally raw compositions since "Archangel." So when Burial released a statement after the EP's release talking about how he intended it to have an anti-bullying message--the EP closes with a two-minute sample of Lena Wachowski's tear-jerking Human Rights Watch award acceptance speech--he provided a context that already seemed present, the EP itself as self-contained and as fully-realized of a piece of music as anything he'd ever released. And hey, it gave everyone their first anti-bullying record that was actually cool.
It is looking at the context leading up to the surprised release of the new, and shortest, EP by Burial since the 00s, clocking in at a mere two tracks, that we can begin to assess both its successes and failures. And both tracks are absolute downcast delights, especially when each taken on its own. "Young Death" feels like Burial taking a few notes from Four Tet's euphoric and sample-heavy house while constructing a track that is wholly his own, from the opening lighter flick to the androgynous voice singing "I will always love you" too sincerely for words. The track's first three minutes play like an ethereal and ambient house track, but despite the ubiquitous cradles and general melancholia one expects from a Burial track, the producer makes an uncharacteristic indulgence in the form of a weightless yet charging arpeggiation, the type of feel-good (and totally out-of-place) melodic curlicue that was the highlight of recent Demdike Stare track "Hardnoise." The track's closing minutes sees the producer returning to the feather-light halftime beat of "Come Down to Us" from the Rival Dealer EP as the track quietly lets itself out.
"Nightmarket" on the B-side again trades in the type of nonlinear structures that Burial had been developing on previous release. From the start, "Nightmarket" is bursting at the seams with mood, be it the muffled and nefarious-sounding laugh at the start of the voice urging the listener to "Come with me" followed immediately by a Tangerine Dream-esque synth melody that switches between full-charge sixteenth notes and a tempo-less and yearning second half. The melody runs twice before the sound of an engine losing steam plunges the listener into the aural equivalent of a dark room, the seeming silence pieced by Burial's arsenal of indistinct noise out of which a cry of "I feel you" softly rings out. As the melodic motif emerges once again, before it repeats the propulsive first half several times, each time its flame seemingly extinguishing until one particular vocal snippet lets look, a charging synth lead straight out of Thief or a John Carpenter film, trading in 80s suspense and horror but without a degree of pastiche or empty homage.
After all, this is Burial and unlike most other artists, he can get away with the kind of overly genuine or earnest sonic signifiers that would typically feel insincere or slight in the hands of another producer. However, after four EPs that raised the stylistic and sonic stakes with each release as Bural became increasingly adept at constructing an immersive narrative over the course of two or three tracks, it's hard not to feel like both "Young Death" and "Nightmarket" feel paltry in comparison. For all the compelling sonic tricks, samples, and innovative arrangements on both tracks, neither feels substantial enough to hold down a side by itself. What is most frustrating is that having followed the producer's progression with renewed interest over the past four releases, these two tracks feel like they are missing a middle track or something else to really round out the EP in the satisfying way Burial has really excelled at this decade. But rather than just buy the EP out of a completist urge, I've listened to this release way more than I thought I would after the first few plays. Because unlike the previous EP releases, this is the first one that really feels like the two songs are almost at random taken from a full-length Burial is cooking up. Whether this is true or not doesn't really matter; on this single Burial shows a new type of album-ready composition in which each song stands tall on its own while only really making sense as part of a larger whole. So here's hoping that when we get to the next holiday that Burial decides to continue his surprise release tradition, it'll be a full-length stuffing our stockings, and one chock full of the types of songs like "Young Death" and "Nightmarket."