Words: J Simpson
On Chemz/Dolphins, Burial rediscovers the plot, reclaiming the rapturous sublimity of 90s rave.
They say that it’s harder to see evidence of God on Earth than the Devil’s playthings. Maybe it’s because humanity are supposed to have faith, or to do the right things for the right reasons, but old Jehovah can seem like either, at best, an absentee landlord or, at worst, an abusive lover while you can see the Devil’s handiwork everywhere you turn – wars and rumours of wars, pestilence, sadism, avarice… just turning on your phone in the morning can read like a litany of the 7 Deadly Sins.
And yet, sometimes, miracles do happen. Humanity choose their better Angels than succumbing to their base instincts. There’s just no telling when it will happen.
That’s sort of what it’s like to get new music from the legendarily enigmatic Burial – the alchemist of UK Garage, the magus of 2-step, who helped take Dubstep to the realm of High Art. Burial not only could not give less than a toss about the ordinary press cycle he seems to actively defy it, dropping imaginative, thoughtful, interesting singles, 12″s and EPs when and if he feels like it.
After his insanely influential first two LPs changed the world and helped to define a particularly British take on Dubstep that would help to define the aesthetic of Hyperdub’s early years, Burial’s spent most of the last 10 years dropping random, one-off singles in a variety of styles (often in the same track). The last decade has found Burial working in more straight-ahead 4/4 club riddims, responding and reacting to the shift towards Techno and House, like a rainbow nimbus around the more standard club fare. It’s been both a continuation and a radical departure for Burial and a far, far cry from the nocturnal night bus melancholy of Burial and Untrue.
From the very start, Burial has unearthed and reclaimed all of the better Angels of 90s rave – the mind expansion, the solidarity, the sexual fluidity. He recognizes the Gospel-like ecstasy of backup singers, returning Garage sirens and r&b divas to the choir loft, the blissful sunrise tranquility of ambient pads of progressive electronica. In one of his rare interviews, Burial’s spoken of being inspired not by 90s rave but the idea of 90s rave, glomming onto his brother’s mixtapes and filling his imagination with all manner of early adolescent romantic imagination.
And there’s a lot to marvel at. As someone who was there, let me tell you – the 90s rave scene was something special, and there was a lot of great electronic music recorded during that decade. But, also as someone who was there, i can also tell you – it wasn’t all great. Sometimes, over the last 10 years, Burial’s become so enamored of his source material that he seemed to sometimes lose perspective. It’s one thing to rip apart old rave ‘chunes in search of Heaven. It’s a whole ‘nother thing entirely to just recreate early electronic music. I’m sorry, stabby plastic piano house chords are shitty and always have been and no amount of curated lofi mixtapes will be able to gaslight me into thinking otherwise.
This makes Chemz/Dolphins a cause for celebration for those of us obsessed with Burial’s earliest material and seeing the potential in the most recent material but also finding ourselves somewhat frustrated. Over the span of two longform meditations, Burial rediscovers some of the moody gothic beauty of the first Burial LPs with the sugary euphoric rush of more recent singles.
“Chemz” begins with an iconic Burial broken 2-step beat until joined by one of his equally signature vocal chops, here sped up to a kind of chipmunk mania. All the while, classic early Hyperdub sub-bass growls and glowers like orange phosphorescent streetlights in a void of inky black nothingness. Impressively, despite being over 12 minutes long, “Chemz” is still a standard dance cut, just one overstuffed with ideas. Nothing overstays its welcome – there’s no cut-and-paste on display here. Instead, “Chemz”‘s bric-a-brac breakbeats hurtle forward like a car with its brakes cut, about to shoot off a cliff. It’s an exhilarating rush, even when dead sober. It even manages to make bouncy house chords sound good!
“Dolphins” could serve as the 12″s mission statement, giving us a hint of Burial’s mindset and motivations as, Lord knows, we won’t hear it from him. Dolphins are synonymous with peppy New Age culture, with trashy stoner posters and proto-Vaporwave art and dimestore meditation tapes (which, admittedly, are kind of awesome.) But they’re also warm-blooded, oxygen-breathing creatures who live most of their life in a cold, dark, airless space. Is Burial identifying with the dolphins here? Should we? Either way, it’s an apt metaphor for trying to be caring and thoughtful in a hedonic world of instant gratification and lacking in empathy.
Those lacking patience or looking for instant gratification are gonna be real frustrated which never does quite getting around to dropping a beat. Instead, a disembodied voice slurs “I love dolphins” over a sonar-like ambient ped, occasionally lit up with some bioluminescent vinyl crackle. It brings to mind late-night ambient freakouts in the chillout room – which were some of the best parts of 90s raves and should really be brought back. It also serves as a nice guided meditation for those of us who are maybe too jaded for affirmation meditations, yoga classes, or life coaches.
As usual, Burial may be better than all of us put together. He may be some sort of rave Bodhisattva who’s taken the opportunity of Covid to further his meditative practice or increase his donations to Unesco. Whatever he’s been doing, we hope he keeps it up. It’s clearly working. Maybe we won’t have to wait too much longer for that next LP.