On the news, Prince Harry drinks rum with foreign dignitaries as his brother forms the bulk of the Malvinas occupational force. The national police forces are being privatised, with state policing functions being sold to private security firms already running prisons, following a thirty-year project in transport, utilities, healthcare and local government. A boy is stabbed by a bus garage I used to wait at daily going to school, just another recent in a series of south London stabbings. On a community radio station, young black men discuss a conspiracy I’m increasingly hearing about, the government introducing guns into working-class black communities. They don’t need to – in times of desperation, negation and scarcity, competition increases. Life becomes more desperate, its preservation less valuable. One’s own life seems worth little, so who gives a shit if I start beef or shank someone? I go on the radio and talk about masculinity, acting male depression, and suicide. People affected directly by the issues call in again.
“Baby you would fall in love” repeats through the title-track of the new Kindred EP by south London musician and producer Burial, aka Will Bevan. It hits the intent listener again later in the third and final track of this grand EP, Ashtray Wasp, lasting an epic 12 minutes. The music of Burial always seems to distil some spirit of the times. It’s the only contemporary music that one goes back to and re-listens again and again well after its release. Everything else seems similar, anodyne, quickly replaced like well-packaged artisan sandwiches, filler by professionals for people with no time or attention. Funny thing, when the sound itself since his first South London Boroughs EP (2005) and the breakout self-titled album (2006) haven’t seen a marked development in this sound. Still the same Playstation and 1980s movie samples, heady bass, rumbling metallic clipped beats and serotonin-depleted house music style, the snatches of female vocal usually revealing some inner secret or doubt. The second album, Untrue (2007), further mapped out this distinctly London sound, tracks named after McDonalds and nightbuses, placed where we somehow became adults without ourselves or the landscape changing, without anything improving or shifting, the colours remaining similar, if at times more violent, darkening. Seven year old birthday party in Camberwell McDonalds: personal experiences of an old but deep-etched nostalgia for some hope left behind in childhood caught in Bevan’s records. A second-generation raver, Burial sounds sometimes like an archivist for old jungle and two-step records, for spending all night playing mega drive games. A doubt that doesn’t presume any solution except what emerges out of the music, what again makes you feel. Rhythm and the heart again make you feel, and that glowering feeling kicks you back into play.
“There is something out there”.
Kindred came out several weeks ago, available through download only, recommended to get via Hyperdub website. Like all of Burial’s music, it’s been an underground and online phenomena, shared by word-of-mouth. The music here marks an up-tempo development – the turn at the end of Loner, like the collaboration with Four Tet in 2009 or the Street Halo EP last year: Burial mapped out a particularly dark space on the first two albums that he seems reluctant to revisit, a black sun that inevitably (where else, we all feel this, it’s in us…) re-emerges in the music but is eclipsed again. Ashtray wasp reawakens and pulses, “I want you”, “I used to belong to you” injected into an otherwise frozen urban soundscape.
“Darkness is us falling, when he opens”: the vocal’s incomplete. Listen to it in Ashtray Wasp, and listen again. Ashtray wasp tears us up and disappears, the intensity of the track building and disappearing, soon returning with more dizziness. Music only for night-times, the only time when we have time for creative activities, for thinking. Work, scheming and stresses belong to the day. The music often inspires comparisons to riding nocturnal public transport, certainly its intention, but there’s another sound of intense obsession and concentration with manipulating sound to achieve this immersive bass, a frozen volcanic sound within lonely closed doors and alienated bodies. Public transport is perhaps the only common identity Londoners have, the city lacking borders and lasting only so far as its Transport for London connections allow. Dreamt ghosts in moments of stolen sleep, “we can’t fight this feeling”.
What makes this melancholy and doubt-tinged sound so timely? Unlike other grime and garage producers who have arisen during the last five years, Burial’s sound isn’t characterised by a warlike swagger and paranoid urban beats, but instead bya tangible reflectiveness and solitude. The sorrows of young Werther, Jude the Obscure, Raskolnikov and 1984’s Winston are known perhaps not in name but certainly in feeling to generations of young people with no obvious place or purpose. It can also be a particularly male phenomena, and particularly wanky, much like music and musicians, but it’d be bad to deny how important and addictive these novels and feelings are, and can speak to a person more than theory or polemic. This doubt is more a social than political phenomena,yet the uncertainty and potential of not knowing, of not being sure of all the answers, is one of the most creative and character-forming spaces one can discover.
On a collective scale, this uncertainty and melancholia could motivate a new culture beyond paranoid violence and neoliberal ego-junk. The limits of contemporary Garage and UK Hip Hop could be, beyond musical originality, caught in the focus on the individual and on self-esteem. A parody of yuppie egotism played out on community radio stations. In celebrating only the name and the status of the individual, his power, meaningful solidarity or engagement in ideas becomes increasingly fractious. Caught in a circle, dog chases tail. What is there for young people to take up, use, or believe in around Kilburn, Tulse Hill, Wood Green, or Thornton Heath? Little. Neither are they passive victims of circumstances, but from the conversations I’ve had and heard with community workers in these areas, as well as my own observations, there’s also a bored opportunistic nihilism, alienated and alienating. After all, feeling alienated or ‘not at home in this world’, as Paolo Virno has it, isn’t just a fault of the world, but might also be a failure of imagination amongst the alienated. Being unable to relate to others, or relate to ideas and values, is an effect of mass social deprivation induced by decades of neoliberalism in Britain, but it’s also something alienated young people are responsible for. Beyond three days of festivity and Footlocker firestarting last summer, years of decline, depression and nothingness. No clear answers emerge out of this, as darkness is us falling and certainties disappear into the fog. The crackle of Burial’s sounds, a deliberate hark-back to the lost and listened-through peripheral sounds of vinyl records, takes momentary refuge in a time now passed, the indicator of melancholia, perhaps the most central feeling of the contemporary era.
Among white middle class kids, those who disproportionately represent the emerging intelligentsia, Burial and dubstep or UK Hip Hop is sometimes derided as trendy, as an indulgence into black British exotica. Perhaps there’s a truth in that’s how it’s consumed. I ask a friend what they think of the new record: “Burial is just over loved ambient bollocks” comes his curt one-liner response. But dismissing what one doesn’t understand by its perceiving bad motive, such as “trendy, hipster, pretentious” are common criticisms heard of anything remotely interesting. Violence, anger, depression and uncertainty are by no means new fault-lines of modernity, but their feeling is deepening. Music programming is one manifestation of this: there are plenty of other recent cultural phenomena to choose from. These tracks glow deep inside a dark place. I want you. That feeling makes one want to stick around a bit longer, re-listen compulsively over and over, make mixtapes and create, follow on through a dark night to see where the morning might take us. “Alright bye”.
J.D. Taylor is a writer from south London, whose forthcoming ‘Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era’ will be published by Zero Books in mid-2012. Blogs at www.drownedandsaved.wordpress.com.