Every time I’ve tried to describe this album to one of my friends, (which, for a while there, was an almost daily activity,) I’ve compared it to that near-ache of trying to remember a song you heard only once, when you can just barely form an idea of some snippet, but it’s hazy and unanchored. That’s what this record sounds like while you’re listening to it. It’s a shadowy, nocturnal record with a wide-open, empty atmosphere. Voices drift in and out, mangled, remote and disembodied like echoes. Percussion clatters and clinks in a gangly shuffle. The murky synths are nervously aloof. One affecting moment after another sneaks up and mesmerizes, like the sad child voice that strains through "Endorphin", the dub-gospel coda to "Shell of Light", and the surprisingly upbeat final track, "Raver", which offers a light at the end of a very dark tunnel that you didn’t particularly want to leave anyway.
So far, Dubstep is a pop-bandwagon that’s been worth hopping. I can’t imagine anyone actually dancing to those Kode9 tracks that crawl like they’re dying under snailspeed Spaceape rhymes, but apparently people do that sometimes. I do know that on a pair of headphones in the middle of the night, this kind of stuff is really fresh and invigorating. Inevitably, a (sub?)genre of British dance music has to make the leap from drug-addled crowd-grinds into bedroom-recluse CD libraries, and Burial is just the man (or woman, no one knows for sure) for the job. Soul Jazz records put out a nice Dubstep compilation this year called Box of Dub, and as good as it is (it’s super-cool and highly recommended), it’s amazing how adeptly Burial’s contribution blows every other track out of the water.
One has to wonder how much of Burial’s music is meticulously designed and how much is instinctually made. Every last detail here evokes something and contributes to the big picture. Like the way the sampled vocals in the title track, recontextualized and almost incongruous, relate to each so uncannily. Or the way the snippets of lyrics in one song are often reminiscent of the snippets in another. Or the way the chords in "Homeless" seem like they’re going to resolve a certain way but never do, never losing the tension seething under the surface no matter how many times they repeat. Or like the way "Etched Headplate" threatens to develop into a full-blown pop chorus, but can’t push past a muffling layer of…something; the same something that obscures every sound here. These sounds are coated in a thin layer of mist, damp like the three-in-the-morning chill that makes you pull up your hood and zip up just a little higher. When you hear this album you feel like the rest of the world is asleep, or raptured up to dubstep heaven (St. Skream at the gates), leaving you all alone with the blurred memory of distant raves and white labels and sub-sub-bass frequencies.