Description: promo single; album track, Untrue
Release date: 2007
First heard: 2007
The seven ages of man – and I mean, specifically, man – ought to include the following two ages: the age of self-consciousness about being “cool”, and the age of suddenly realising you don’t give a fuck what other people think of you. In terms of what music you listen to, these two ages are key.
Sometime in the late noughties, I was depping for Gideon Coe in the ten-to-midnight slot on 6 Music. It was not my default “dep”, and way past my bedtime, but I enjoyed the Peel-like freedom from the daytime playlist it offered, and when you’re used to being on-air during office hours, it’s liberating to broadcast after everybody’s gone home. Anyway, I was paired with a young, hip, clued-up, hyperactive ex-Radio 1 producer (in fact, I believe he’d worked with Peel in his last years) whose puppydog energy was infectious. When the records were playing, we had some animated conversations about music. We didn’t know each other very well, so it was a bonding experience. Anyway, at one juncture, off-air, he asked me this:
“Do you like dubstep?”
As it happened, I did like dubstep. Before I’d read Rob Fitzpatrick’s eloquent page-long review of Burial’s eventually Mercury-nominated second album Untrue in Word magazine at the end of 2007, I’d never encountered the word and was a stranger to dance genres. But through Rob’s evangelistically vivid descriptions of this aromatic new music from the clubs of Croydon, and in particular from this anonymous new practitioner called Burial, my inquisitiveness drove me to Amazon and I invested. I had only the vaguest notion of what the music was all about, but I gathered it was a beautiful noise coming up from the streets and that I didn’t really need to go out after dark in Croydon to get into it. Untrue went immediately onto “repeat” and it saw me through an entire urban winter.
I still listen to it today in its gloriously grey entirety, and it screams London to me: spooky, cinematic, littered, threatening, soothing, exciting, dark, threatening, indistinct in places, a parallel world of snatched conversation and distorted voices, it speaks in sounds. As the untitled opening track – my first experience of Burial and my first experience of dubstep – is 46 seconds long and not really a “song”, second track Archangel represents my official door into a new world of possibilities. Its beat rattles like a crushed beer can caught in an eddy behind an industrial bin, or a clattering automated piece of factory hardware punching out some circuit board or other after dark. A voice, sampled, seems to sing something about “holding you” and “could it be alone,” but these bulletins from another dimension are not there to be understood. The voices in this music are not narrative.
The title recalls, for me, the code name used at the end of Apocalypse Now that calls in an airstrike, but you may take from it what you will. The song is all hints and vagaries. You fill in the blanks, and dubstep has many blanks. Strings seem to swell, as if from a movie soundtrack (many samples within are from scores), but it does not uplift, not while that caffeinated beat digs at your ribs. This is sublime music. I don’t care who Burial is. (He’s a bloke called William Bevan from South London.) I don’t care about anything but the music when it’s playing through my brain, almost exclusively on public transport, or on foot, and very rarely by day.
Archangel is night music. It’s not really to be extracted and ripped from the womb of the full album, and yet, it’s borne of the pick’n’mix iTunes age, and probably more usually heard mixed into the track before and into the track after on a pirate radio station. Actually – and I have a young relative who’s heavily into dubstep and a DJ – I know that a track from Untrue isn’t being played on a pirate radio anywhere, as it does not belong to the believers. It’s one for the Word readers, the middle-aged, the non-clubgoing, the coffee table, the dinner party. (Remember when drum’n’bass went dinner party in the early 90s? We used to play the backside out of Goldie and Metalheadz when people came round; mind you, we were all pretty wild in the mid-90s when we turned 30, and our parties did not revolve around dinner.)
I have long entered the age of man when I don’t give a fuck what people think about me, and certainly not what music I like, or listen to. I think I truly stopped caring when I arrived at Q magazine in 1994. What liberation!
I actually bought a couple of dubstep compilations after Untrue, and learned a lot. I enjoyed some of it, and some of it was unlistenable, and there was nothing by Skream or Benga that touched Burial for the cinematic. (I quite dug a track by Steve Gurley called Hotboys (Dub), if you’re interested.)
So, back at 6 Music, late-nite, off-air, late noughties: I have been asked by this young, buzzy producer with interesting facial hair if I like dubstep. Maybe it’s a test? “Yes,” I say. “I love that Burial album.” Remember, I don’t give a fuck what anybody thinks about my musical taste. But I feel a twinge when he replies, with a sneer, “That’s not dubstep!”