It’s been noted that Burial’s Kindred EP is the type of music that gets music critics drooling, tripping over their own feet to paint adjective-laden pictures of the sounds William Bevan manages to brew up. With good reason, ladies and gents. In the course of just over half an hour, Burial manages to recast his signature sound with paradoxical tracks that, while sparse, seem to contain worlds. I’ve been living with this album for weeks – really living with it, since I can’t seem to get it off my speakers – and I still don’t think I’m close to unpacking it.
Burial’s music has always had an inextricably cinematic element. But it’s a prescriptive soundtrack – one that necessarily establishes a scene and fills in the details. You get the feeling that Burial is composing tracks as he maneuvers through an urban world around him, looking at the scene, say, “In McDonalds,” or, “Near Dark,” and translating those visual elements and moods into sonic fabric. Like the best of his ambient and (post)dubstep contemporaries, Burial’s music inspires imagination. His music seems to contain worlds because it very much does. On Kindred, those worlds continue to grow like the living things that they are; the subway cars aren’t so empty, the snatches of conversation are less disjointed, and the city’s harsh edges have softened a nearly imperceptible amount.
Kindred is a clear descendent of Burial’s earlier work, with fragments of ancestors on Burial, Untrue, and Street Halo melding seamlessly into their latest incarnations. He’s played with ethereal strings and vocals loops before, and the clackering rhythms found across this EP will sound familiar. But never before has he put them together in quite this way, in full, brooding form that seems to push at the outer edges of the tracks. There’s a sense of simultaneous foreboding and release, tied to a center that swirls from left to right and back again, leaving the listener both entranced and off-balance. It’s amazing how much he can do with so little.
Though the record is only comprised of three tracks, each listing is worth a few songs each, composed with crescendos and decrescendos, left and right turns, and occasionally short stretches of complete silence. There’s a sense that each track is a journey — what is it about Burial and subway rides that seems unavoidable? — each a self-contained story that doesn’t necessarily follow a single narrative path from start to finish. All three tracks have significant pauses, as if Burial is forcing you to take out an earbud and listen to something outside of this record for a second, and each time the track comes back it’s a relief. Not our stop. Burial hasn’t left us to try to decipher this quite yet.
Title track “Kindred,” which opens the album, starts with a needle drop that soon morphs into the soft rain and far-off thunderstorm that paint the melancholy of much of this album. The song pops and crackles, alive with the discordant ambiance of a rain-soaked city, until its fits and starts finally give way to the familiar future-garage clattering of a Burial beat. In many ways “Kindred” is a typical Burial track – particularly when you synthesize his early work with the more recent, longer collaborations he’s put out with Four Tet and Thom Yorke. But though it’s familiar, “Kindred” is far from ordinary. By the time its eleven and a half minutes have faded away, the seed has been planted. This EP is beautiful realism painted with a prodigy’s brush.
Kindred’s second track, “Loner,” kicks off with the spoken promise, “there’s something out there.” Separated into three parts, the track is a faster twirl around our sound city, riding a pulsing 4/4 beat and wild, swirling synths and trying to find what that something is. It’s a disorienting taxi ride filled with sirens; it’s a pounding pill-fueled headache; it’s a lonely kid looking at strangers at a rave. Where “Loner” really shines is in its sweet, minute-long epilogue – a near complete departure from its first six and a half minutes. As the first two segments of the track recede (accompanied by storm clouds), the din of the city is replaced by Kindred’s most moving vocal sample. “Hold on,” it tells us, while the pieces of a beat echo along with the remnants of vinyl raindrops and static thunder. A girl sings as a man walks slowly down an empty hallway. I won’t pretend to know what just happened.
“Loner,” aided by its angelically wistful ending, has the remarkable effect of producing a vaccum when it finally leaves for good. The track’s final seconds are among the loneliest on this overcast release. Perhaps that’s why “Ashtray Wasp” so easily shakes me to my core. The track, by far Burial’s most impressive to date, is twelve minutes of having your breath taken away. “This is good,” I thought during “Kindred.” “Loner” made it great. “Ashtray Wasp” makes it transcendent.
It’s as if Kindred is a cloud gathering static energy throughout its first twenty minutes, only to finally explode into lightning sparks on “Ashtray Wasp.” Like it’s predecessors, the track moves in and out, with beats surfacing, submerging, surfacing again. The vocal samples – less adulterated here – are more distinguishable but no less otherworldly. There’s a pitch-shifting section at 9:45 that is simultaneously beautiful and bone-chilling. And there’s an overwhelming feeling that, try as you might, you can’t escape this disorienting spiral. Burial transports you to a gloomy city not too dissimilar from the world outside our doors, and he does it with fleeting memories tied to a metronome that never stops moving forward. That is what makes this EP so fantastic. Burial pins down the unsettling elements of everyday urban life — the anonymity, the disorienting movement, the shared loneliness — and communicates them, nearly wordlessly, in a way that makes them seem simultaneously familiar and foreboding. This might not be my life, this journey captured on record. But I recognize it.