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The Augmented Reality of Burial’s ‘Untrue,’ 10 Years Later

Exploring the impact of one of the most influential albums of the millennium

Silhouette of a man with headphones looking at the ‘Untrue’ album cover Getty Images/Hyperdub/Ringer illustration

There are the memories we make and the memories we inherit. When the elusive electronic artist Burial was a child, his older brother regaled him with stories of the nights he spent in the underground raves of London in the ’90s, relishing the vibrant U.K. garage and jungle scene. Burial, née William Bevan, was too young to experience any of it firsthand, but his brother’s effusive depictions of youth culture became his own memories. That vicariousness is often how worldviews are shaped for younger siblings; in Burial’s case, it’s also how an entire world was built.

When an inherited memory begins to vine around lived experience, it can be difficult to separate your truth from someone else’s. Bevan, however, had always been aware of his status as an outsider. He may have been a raver in spirit, but unlike his older brother, he’d never been to a clandestine warehouse party, never attended an illegal show. He’d spent most of his young life walking around South London; he was someone with a truant heart, as he’d say. It’s an identity that colors his perspective as an artist; Burial’s music has always explored the space between the self and its surroundings.

“I wanna make tunes that are like a space in London but also a space in a club or in your head,” Bevan said in 2006 in one of the few interviews he’s ever given. "A club is not that dissimilar to sitting on your own with headphones.”

Burial is trying to make sense of oxymoronic imagery. Going to a club is inherently different than having a headphone session, but the two experiences represent two sides of isolation: Getting lost in sound is a liminal experience that’s both out-of-body and self-immersive. Bevan’s music seeks to create a space for both.

In 2006, as an anonymous 26-year-old producer so averse to attention that he refused even those press photos that obscured his head, Burial released a self-titled debut that served as the foundation of his sound. “He’s so gifted, he truly is,” BBC Radio 1 electronic music host Mary Anne Hobbs said on a broadcast previewing the album. “And the textures of the beautiful, widescreen music that he makes are so unbelievably unique.” But it wasn’t until a year later that he truly found his voice. It was buried under broken glass, radio-static hisses, empty spray paint canisters rolling along the sidewalk, the screeches of buses and trains, waterspouts emptying into the gutter. Beneath layers of urban terroir were a muddy, subterranean bass, alien drum patterns that seemed to slip in and out, and R&B vocals stretched and pitch-shifted to an unrecognizable, digitized androgyny—somehow only magnifying the emotional resonance in their voices.

Bevan cast a Venn diagram of light and darkness; Untrue, his magnum opus, was the interlocking center. Ten years after its release in 2007, Burial’s sophomore album remains the most exemplary piece of electronic music of the millennium, and its influence casts a wide net reaching far beyond the underground.

The way in which Burial’s identity was packaged in the mid-aughts deserves to be in a time capsule; is it even possible to thrive as a faceless entity in 2017? Is it possible to withhold elements of yourself wholesale without it being cynically charged as performative? Burial’s emergence amid total anonymity came during the rise of the mp3 blog as a sort of new-age pirate radio, before music blogging became another branch of the relentless gig economy. But even then, the mystery of Burial threatened to engulf his music. Rumors of his true identity spread and took on a life of their own; it just didn’t seem possible that such a fully fleshed-out sound could come from a total unknown. By 2008, Bevan had grown tired of the media’s wild goose chase and revealed his name and a low-res photo of himself on Myspace. But, as is customary of the Burial experience, there’s space carved out for those who choose to cling to the mystery— is the domain of a funeral service.

The internet was once a haven for those who wished to keep their identities secret, but as it grew into an investigative platform for anyone who wanted to know about anything, maintaining an element of mystery became an increasingly valuable tool. Witch house, the short-lived electronic subgenre almost entirely indebted to Burial’s sound, emphasized obscure gothic imagery, unpronounceable monikers, and a dragged-out audio malaise; the Swedish music group Iamamiwhoami announced its existence in 2010 through a series of willfully obscure YouTube clips that became music-blog catnip; and Sia’s faceless promotion of her 2014 album, 1000 Forms of Fear, brought the mystery to top-40 radio.

Yet as much as Untrue was an influence in the years following its release, Burial’s sonic playground on the album is an homage to the ’90s in his home of South London. The ethereal melodies and syncopated rhythms of U.K. jungle, the chopped-up R&B amphetamine of two-step garage, and the Fifth Element sound of stateside producers like Timbaland and Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins are all equalized in a dreary veil of field recordings. The album’s lead single, “Archangel,” is a perfect triangulation of influence—a strange, alternate-dimension pop hit contained within the album’s dimly lit caverns. Burial made it in less than a day, mourning the death of his pet dog.

In today’s age of crystalline production that presents electronic music as fractals, Burial’s production on Untrue takes on a lo-fi, wabi-sabi ethos that borders on technophobic—or as technophobic as an electronic artist can possibly be. Burial has long claimed to be self-taught, only knowing how to create music on Sound Forge, one of the oldest professional audio editing programs still in existence. The jury-rigged setup has become a part of his mystique. Mistakes are smoothed over with fades and then built over; each song serves as its own palimpsest. He samples everything from Ray J to the sound of someone walking through a church, from Aaliyah to a crackling wood fire. A distorted line from David Lynch’s Inland Empire is the first thing you hear on the record. The drums, which are occasionally overlaid with sounds of rain, were not run through a sequencer (because Burial didn’t know how to use one at the time), which means they aren’t always completely aligned to a time signature. If it sounds as though momentum is pushing the percussion into itself, that’s likely what you’re hearing. But it’s by design.

“When I try and do drums that are too regimented, they lose something,” he told Martin Clark, a fellow British producer, in 2006. “But the moment I put drums where I think they sound good, rather than in time, they seem to have that roll, the swing of the jungle and garage tunes I love.”

The critical acclaim for Untrue came during the golden age of U.K. dubstep, and that was indeed how Burial’s music was labeled. But where most of his contemporaries like El-B, Skream, and Benga were sending clarion wub-wubs into the future, Burial’s sound was just trying to recapture the afterglow of the night before. The object of the music was to get lost in it—to hit the thousand-yard stare in the tune, as he once put it. Untrue is music as augmented reality: The sensory details of real life vivify the textures of the album and vice versa. The whirring of transit becomes symphonic; the cracked pavement and loose gravel imitate the various vinyl pops and hisses heard throughout. Through headphones, the voices in Burial’s world and our own are obscured and far off. They start to sound like the subconscious.

Untrue seems expressly made for the transition from night to day, the wee hours where ideas flicker and fade alongside the waning consciousness. It’s post-euphoric, there to serve as a crutch for the comedown as you’re alone on the subway, alone in a McDonald’s, alone with your thoughts. The album may be rooted in the sonic imagery of South London, but its narratives and depictions are universal. It fosters communion in being alone, together. It’s a safe space as much as it is an album.

“Safe space” may seem a strange designation for such a dark record, but its darkness isn’t a portent or an equivocation of evil; it’s simply an ever-present reality. And whether the listener is aware of it or not, Bevan provides equipment to navigate through it. Every song on Untrue is populated with little clinking percussive bits filling in the voids. Most of them are the sounds of lighters being flicked. Growing up, Bevan had dreams of being transported in the night; the closest—or furthest—he ever got was the seaside, away from the ambient glow of London’s inner city. “I love it out there, because when it’s dark, it’s totally dark,” he told the late Wire Magazine writer Mark Fisher in 2007. “We used to have to walk back and hold hands and use a lighter. See the light, see where you were, and then you’d walk on, and the image of where [you] just were would still be on your retina.”

We’ve witnessed a decade of world building in the time since Untrue’s release. Burial’s 2006 self-titled debut established the environment, but Untrue populated it with empathetic characters and voices. It was a cursory exploration in how to build a place of harmony and acceptance. Bevan mastered the use of vocal samples, finding humanity in the ghostly voices he employed by stripping away gendered signifiers altogether; chopped snippets of vocals are pitch-shifted up and down to sound male and female simultaneously. “Some jungle tunes had a balance, the glow, the moodiness that comes from the presence of both girls and boys in the same tune,” Bevan told Fisher. “There's tension because it’s close, but sometimes perfect together. Men sometimes exist in this place where they don’t have a fucking clue what girls go through.”

In 2013, Bevan expanded his music’s scope on matters of identity and sexuality with the release of Rival Dealer, which stands alongside Untrue as his best work. The EP’s coda is a collage of lines from director Lana Wachowski’s Visibility Award speech at the Human Rights Campaign gala in 2012, under a blanket of distortion, speaking power to trans acceptance. The record ends the way Wachowski ends her speech, communicating an idea—a dream—that Burial has long tried to contain in sound: “This world that we imagine in this room might be used to gain access to other rooms, to other worlds previously unimaginable.”

In May, Bevan reopened a portal into his world with the release of Subtemple/Beachfires, a two-song suite devoid of rhythm but full of cavernous echoes, chimes, and the clacking sound of a combination lock being turned. On “Subtemple,” there’s a persistent refrain: Don’t get so loud. The record is a pure view of the Burial ethos, stripped of the pretense of propulsive sound. It’s a place to breathe and walk around for those who need it.

Two months earlier, a car drove through a crowd of pedestrians along the Westminster Bridge in London, killing four and injuring 50; three days after the record’s release, a shrapnel bomb exploded at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena, killing at least 22 and wounding 59 others. Subtemple/Beachfires felt like an invitation back into the safe space. The miracle of Burial will always be the pathos in his sound collages and how they articulate the bonds we share with those we may never know. “If you alone could hear someone upset on the other side of the world, then maybe then you could do something about it,” Bevan told Fisher.

Electronic music codifies modern human expression in ways acoustic can’t; it taps into anxieties and exultations that have only ever existed in the now. At times it can feel like a language transmitted to us from the future, whose proper grammar we’ve spent the last century reverse engineering. With Untrue, Bevan managed to escape the temptation of decoding the age ahead of us, instead opting to use the technology at his disposal to repackage memories under threat of being left behind. Hidden behind the spectral presence of the city and the fading soundscapes of his youth, Bevan wove a deeply personal narrative of a faceless South Londoner in search of a guiding light. The light he found soon became our own.