Chasing A Lightning That Burns Forever

Burial - Electronic Music of Brainvoyager

Burial’s seminal Untrue was released 14 years and just about a month ago. This is not a round figure, and this is not a timely commemoration of an album’s release date. Instead, I merely wanted to submit my humble meditation on one of my favorite albums of all time and what it means to me personally.

Isn’t it kind of always on-brand to write about Burial’s music whenever the hell the impetus strikes? Fitting, because this seems to be the same approach that Burial takes in releasing his work to the public. I have no other reason for writing about Burial’s Untrue beyond an experience that I recently had listening to the album in its entirety that was nothing but otherworldly.

Inarguably one of the most ethereal and moody albums ever released, I had the fortune of listening to Untrue on a long walk through the palpable fog of night as streetlights lit my view. The air was crisp, the night was young, and I was alone. Very alone. And I would not have changed a single detail. Because, as I see it, Burial fans know that the atmospherics to his music are like few others. His music grabs you with a ghostly hand that pulls you into the ether.

To be a hardcore Burial fan is to live some difficult truths: you will never see Burial perform live. You will never wait in anticipation for the stage to darken as the moment you thought would never come finally arrives. Why is William Bevan, the man behind the proverbial mask, such an enigma?

To be clear, enigma here is not the same as in the likes of your Daft Punks or Daniel Dumiles. William Bevan is of a different breed. His name was completely unknown to start his career, to the point that theories began to arise as to the identity behind the beats. It appears that Bevan prefers, or even relishes in, this mystique. As evidenced in his 2007 Guardian interview, in which Bevan recalls listening to Burial tunes with his ‘mates’ and not even revealing to them that they were, in fact, sharing head nods with Burial himself.

He has achieved a nearly Pychon-esq reclusiveness, a feat made only bolder in the all-consuming technological age in which Brand is king, Image is idol and Access means everything. Basically, you can only hope that you’ll ever see more than the handful of pictures that exist of Burial. Fantasizing of someday catching him on a Facebook Live Stream is likely a total waste of a daydream. What Burial denies us in his physical presence, he more than makes up for in feeling, which helps explain why my experience of listening to Untrue in the dark fog of night was so poignant.

The moment was not lost on me. Encountering another Burial fan in the wild, at least for me, has proven a precious and chance experience. I am often left to the lonely venture of scrolling YouTube comments in search of a connection to other fans of Burial’s music.

This database of souls shows a pattern. Many have expressed their hopes and desires for meeting at the fateful intersection of opportunity and preparedness where they can one day find the perfect setting for which to get lost in the riddle of Untrue. Different dreams, each as personal as the next, but all chasing the same thing: transcendence.

Because for Burial hardcores, this is all we have: You can lament the fact that you will never, ever get to see a live performance, or you can understand that Burial’s music actually contains a gift, a quality of perfection not necessarily in the music itself but in the experience. It is Burial’s exclusivity that makes his music almost ordained to its listeners. The fact that you will never get these songs in the live setting allows them to preside in the realm of feeling, in the abstract, in the world of one’s own mind and intuition. That world is the only place where perfection exists.

As a Burial concert can only be imagined, it contains none of the nagging trivialities that plague the material world. Your feet have never ached at a Burial concert. You have never been waylaid by the tall jerk who snuck in amongst the denser part of the crowd obstructing your view of center stage just as the opener finished their set. And you have never had to engage in the Cartesian-like battle of dualism between your weary physical body, which has given its all to maintain the position at the front of the stage, and your mind, which knows the spiritual prize to be gained by committing to this position. Instead, we have these fortuitous moments, personal relationships with his music that can sometimes approach religiosity. This was precisely why, though there was about a day and half’s worth of music loaded onto my phone when I set out on my walk, that there was only ever one answer to what I was going to listen to through the fog. This is the gravity that Untrue holds.

Burial himself, as far as I can tell, is a bit of a lost soul. In the scarce interviews he does do, he generously provide glimpses into the man behind the music. That’s not to say that he’s a lost soul in the gloomy, woe-is-me sense, but rather as that of someone in search of times gone by. Plenty of critics have attempted to box his music into the conventions of genre, with Future Garage seeming to be the predominant label to boot. Excusing a conversation involving the futility of genre here, but Burial is someone who will forever be looking backwards, searching for a time, a place, and a movement that ended many years ago: the infamous U.K. Rave scenes of the late 80s to early 90s, a movement to which Burial’s older brother belonged and one that largely informed Burial’s work.

It’s not just that Burial never got the chance to attend an underground rave, but that he grew up knowing that he never would. Predating cellphones and the Internet, this entire world existed on the fringe. It was a culture that had to be sought out and lived in order to be understood. Burial’s music seems to be an attempt to come to terms with this, or perhaps to offer his own interpretation of what these raves must have felt like. Or maybe Untrue is a ghost of the U.K. Rave scene?

Either way, there clear theme in all of this, one that we all know but struggle to fully realize, is that experience is a bleeding edge. Reflections like these make it all somehow okay or even fitting. There’s something poetic to the fact that we, like Burial, will never get the experience we so desperately crave. It’s why I consider my experience of listening to Untrue through the breathless fog of night to be transcendent, one that belongs totally and solely to me.

Even so, now, there’s a sense of communion when I listen to Untrue, a practice that I only allow myself during the winter months and always, always, always at night. Why? Partly because I have a firm belief that one should only listen to Untrue in conditions that approximate that of the U.K., but also because Untrue, for me, has become one of those rare albums that warrants consumption only in its entirety and an album that somehow feels a cut above, even alongside most other favorite albums of mine. Just as I will never get to experience the kinetic harmony between my body and mind as I bob to the chopped vocals of “Archangel” or cry amidst a crowd of strangers to the outro in “Shell of Light,” neither was Burial ever able to feel the adrenaline-soaked sweat of his shirt glued to his back from a night of raving made all the more intense by its illegality. I have made much more than peace with this reality.

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