Burial, Rival Dealer (Hyperdub)
Burial's greatest strength has always been his greatest weakness as well: He transmits such an overwhelming sense of sorrow that there's practically no room left for anything else. There's something almost suffocating about the maudlin character of his music, which howls like a wind tunnel for the testing of weapons-grade pathos. How much bleak could it get? The answer, obviously, is none more bleak. Coupled with the ardor of his fans, Burial's music begins to seem almost a little bit coercive, as though it were daring you to resist its melancholic free-fall; to remain unmoved is to fail electronic music's version of the Voight-Kampff test, and resign yourself to a fate in which all your pathetic robot memories and opinions will eventually be lost in time like tears in rain. (At least, that's how it looks in the Burial worldview.)
On the surface, Burial's new EP — his first since last December's 'Truant"/"Sleeper" — sounds as relentlessly hangdog as ever, and it makes its point by using all the elements we now recognize as his stock in trade: vinyl hiss, manipulated female vocals, ghostly melodies, reverb settings dialed all the way to "Abyss." But his single-minded moroseness feels like it's beginning to break down in interesting ways, opening up the space for more emotional ambiguity. The breakbeat that comes tearing through the title track feels uncharacteristically desperate, even angry; the way it lashes out suggests an excess that can't be contained, and that goes for the record as a whole. The rough-hewn quality that has always been a part of Burial's aesthetic (needle fluff, unquantized beats, lo-fi sonics) no longer registers as mere affect; the music feels structurally unstable, ready to fall apart at any moment. And it does, in fact, repeatedly. Like last year's "Truant" and "Rough Sleeper," the 11-minute "Rival Dealer" and the 13-minute "Come Down to Us" function like mini-suites of two or three parts, plus interludes and moments of total silence.
What appears at first to seem disjointed slowly assembles itself into something almost like a narrative. It's stitched together by sampled vocal scraps that slowly reveal an unmistakable subtext, some of them recurring again and again across the whole record: "This is who I am." "Sometimes you try to find yourself, but you run away. That's what happened to me." "You are not alone." "Who are you? Why don't you come to me?" The EP closes out with an extended fragment of the film director Lana Wachowski's acceptance speech at the Human Rights Campaign's 2012 Visibility Awards, in which she spoke about the "negotiation between public and private identity." The thump and crackle of the podium mic creates a perfectly Burial-like backdrop as she says, "I began to believe voices in my head — that I was a freak, that I am broken, that there is something wrong with me, that I will never be loveable. Years later I find the courage to admit that I am transgender and that this does not mean that I am unloveable." And here Burial's chords begin rising in the mix, and she continues, "So that this world that we imagine in this room might be used to gain access to other rooms, to other worlds, previously unimaginable."
Whatever biographical relevance this may or may not have for Burial himself, what's remarkable is what a profoundly hopeful and even joyful sentiment it is, and it casts new light on the entire EP. "Hiders," likewise, beams as wide as a smiley-face hot-air balloon, with bright major chords blossoming into a jubilant new wave chorus that sounds more like M83; the first half of "Come Down to Us" is a quiet storm of butterflies and honey. Has Burial discovered camp? He's still daring you to remain unmoved, but the terms have changed: This time, the question is, "Are you really going to be able to avoid cracking a smile at this?" Optimism, as it turns out, is a good look for Burial. Has the pall finally lifted? Here's to clear skies ahead.
Sparky, Portland (Numbers)
Glasgow's Numbers label celebrates the 10th anniversary of its eponymous party series by dusting off a 2002 track first released on Stuffrecords, an earlier label from the same crew. "Portland" went on to become a signature tune at Numbers parties, and the lush, Detroit-inspired electro track also became a favorite of Ricardo Villalobos, who now pays tribute with a pair of remixes. Actually, make that a pair of pairs, as both of his reworks — one 13 minutes, one nearly 20 — are meant to be equally playable at 33 or 45. (That's a little trickier with the digital files, but it's still possible, provided you have a digital DJ system like Traktor or Serato, or a basic audio-editing application.)
At the slower speed (the default, if you buy the digital files), it goes galumphing along in herky-jerky shuffling motions; the buoyant synth melody of the original has been whittled down to little more than a broken bedspring that's left twanging nervously against a beat that's suffused in weird artifacts and bell tones. It sounds a little like Dabrye, in fact. Villalobos' second mix begins with the same beat from the first — you can tell that both parts were simply cut from the same extended recording session — and quickly dissolves into an ambient spray of errant drum hits and ethereal pads. This being Ricardo, there are two codas, one with beats and one without, both six minutes long, because why not?
Played at 45, they become totally different beasts: Instead of fog-headed hip-hop, they turn to rippling techno, moving like rusty machines that have just gotten their first injection of oil in decades. The second remix is particularly powerful, so full of different shades of bass (sub-bass and mid-range bass and regular bass-bass, all catapulted into the sweet spot by the raised tempo) that it's practically overflowing with the stuff. The release is rounded out by two tracks from the same 1998 sessions that produced "Portland": "Wilson St." is an ambient sketch, and "Jigsaw" is a marvelously well-balanced electro cut that plays needle-nosed bleeps against balm-like chords. But the highlight of the whole thing remains Sparky's original mix of "Portland," which comes across like some magical combination of Drexciya and Human League's "Seconds."
Funn City, "All Night People" (Startree)
While Metro Area's Morgan Geist is off racking up U.K. No. 1s with his Storm Queen project, his partner Darshan Jesrani isn't just sitting idly by. He kicks off his Startree label with the first single from his Funn City alias, and it's every bit as classic-sounding as you'd expect — a wriggly, quick-stepping number balanced on the cusp between Hi-NRG and space(y) disco. As a retro exercise, it's a pitch-perfect simulacrum, from the octave-jumping bass line to the laser zaps to the occasional flash of delightfully incongruous electric guitar, and the music is so immaculately crafted that it's immediately apparent that Jesrani lives and breathes this stuff. But it's immediately clear also that this is no mere retro exercise. From the singer Zane's billowing harmonies to the wonky little synthesizer solos, every element radiates an almost giddy joy, and the way the focus shifts from instrument to instrument across the song's 10-minute length suggests a game of musical hot potato. You'd be hard pressed to find a contemporary club track that sounds more innocent than this — a neat trick, given the decades of dance-music history that it rolls up inside its lithe frame. (Hear samples at Juno.)
Amir Alexander, Don't Go EP
The Chicago producer Alexander Amir's "Don't Go" bumps hard. If you were to make a list of 2013's best kick drums, this would surely be near the top: It bounces like gloves against a punching bag, or a rubber hammer wrapped in cotton batting. The movement of the drums suggests bowling pins scattering in all directions, until the groove starts to seem like a tightly looped .gif of strike after strike after strike. And then, that bass line: It's so low and so scruffy that it barely even registers as notes, and more like some rough beast nosing around in the underbrush. It's that rarest of combinations: house that's as slinky as it is hard-hitting, and that's before you even factor in the softly wafting pads, the lonely vocal refrain, and the sighing-robot bleeps that comprise the song's principal riff. The flipside's "Bangin'" is slightly more streamlined, but it maintains the same balance between the rough and the smooth, with brightly chiming FM keys scattering like dandelion puffs beneath the force of red-hot drum programming. Occasionally, a vocal sample proclaims, "The real shit!" Damn straight.