Burial’s Antidawn opens with a sound so subtle, so instinctive, you might miss it the first half-dozen times: the muted harrumph of a throat being cleared. But no opening line or expository declaration materializes in its wake. Instead, a thousand shades of gray rush in to fill the void. In the background, a blunted stylus pushes its way endlessly through a dusty vinyl rut, the Sisyphean loop that carries all Burial’s music. Chimes shimmer in the darkness; a low wind blows. Far in the distance, a voice faintly reminiscent of Gregorian chant flares up and is snuffed out, like a votive in a drafty nave. Almost a full minute passes before we hear the next thing resembling a melody—a brief snippet of a voice plaintively singing, “You came around my way”—but its appearance is fleeting, followed only by more emptiness.

Across five tracks, Burial proceeds like this for nearly 44 minutes, teasing imminent emotional payoff and then slipping back into the murk. It is his longest offering since 2007’s Untrue—long enough to qualify as his long-awaited third album, if he had chosen to call it that. But it is also the London musician’s most insubstantial release, seemingly by design. The music simply meanders, drifting across stray synthesizers, snatches of voice, and Burial’s habitual diegetic sound effects—coughs, lighter flicks, crickets, thunder, rainfall—severed from any context. There are few musical landmarks and little in the way of recognizable compositional form. Crucially, there are almost no drums. Not the 2-step rhythms that have defined Burial’s work since the very beginning. Not the thrumming trance and techno pulses that have been leaking into songs like “Space Cadet” as of late. Not even the soft downbeat grooves of a ballad like “Her Revolution” or “His Rope.” (The salient exception: a brief stretch of muted kick drums, halfway through “New Love,” whose cottony thump recalls Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS project.) Burial is no stranger to doom and gloom, but Antidawn is a barren wasteland, warmed only by the occasional church organ or doleful scrap of love song.

This is not the first time Burial has muted his drums. He did it on 2016’s “Nightmarket,” an eerie collage of beatless synth melodies and static that marked a significant break from the hard-charging “Temple Sleeper.” The following year’s spacious “Subtemple” and “Beachfires” descended deeper into ambient music’s chilly nether regions, and he went undersea spelunking once again with last year’s “Dolphinz,” a nine-minute expanse of cetacean wails and ominous sub-bass drone. Within the ambient corner of Burial’s oeuvre, what distinguishes Antidawn, beyond its extreme sprawl, is the collaged chorus of voices that holds together its windswept expanse of undulating nothingness. Mostly sung rather than spoken, these sampled utterances coalesce around themes of absence, desire, and unease.

“Hold me,” pleads a voice in the opening “Strange Neighbourhood”; “Nowhere to go,” murmurs another, before a third answers, “Walking through these streets.” “Shadow Paradise” deploys entreaty after entreaty: “Let me hold you”; “Come to me, my love”; “Take me into the night.” It sounds as though Burial has gone through his record collection and gathered all the bits where a singer begins a verse with little or no accompaniment, except perhaps a single quavering synthesizer. Particularly on the closing “Upstairs Flat,” the cumulative effect is like a love letter written in disappearing ink, the narrative reduced to just a few brushstrokes: “You came my way”; “Somewhere in the darkest night”; “When you’re alone”; “Here I am.” Against the ticking of a grandfather clock and a few mournful notes of muted trumpet, the record ends with a garbled plea that sounds a lot like “Come bury me”—a fitting capstone for this intensely interior EP.

Is Antidawn a potent distillation of Burial’s aesthetic, or a caricature of it? I keep vacillating between those two assessments. Few artists are as beholden to their stylistic tics as Burial; by all rights, he should have painted himself into a corner long ago, yet he’s kept things interesting by splashing garish colors and jarring details—the gospel house of “Dark Gethsemane,” the acid-trance arpeggios of “Chemz”—over his resolutely grayscale palette. Antidawn makes no room for that kind of surprise. Instead, it doubles down on his signature sounds and steadfastly downcast mood; its melancholy is so pervasive that it risks being sucked into a maudlin undertow.

Still, if you are in a mood to submit to its spell, Antidawn can exert a powerful pull. Burial has never displayed much fealty to the gridded regularity of most contemporary electronic music—he claimed to create his early songs using rudimentary audio editors that lack the quantized precision of advanced music-composition software—and Antidawn drifts further from conventional musical meter than ever. Even in the near-total absence of drums, however, a different kind of rhythm begins to suggest itself. For all the music’s apparent aimlessness, these synths, voices, sound effects, and pockets of silence are carefully paced; they add up to a kind of tidal ebb and flow, a give and take as natural as breathing.

In recent years, Burial has increasingly tried to escape the linearity of dance music by cobbling together pieces of songs into multi-part suites. With Antidawn, he makes the most of that technique; every track is riddled with fake-outs, false endings, and trapdoors. In that sense, despite the record’s heavy-handedness, there is something playful about Antidawn. Burial’s relentless refusal to deliver anything like closure suggests an acidic sense of humor, the musical equivalent of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. I keep returning to that cough at the beginning of the record, and the curious sense of absence that it signals. I imagine a portrait sitter clearing their throat and abandoning the scene: Only the mottled velvet backdrop remains, yet the painter persists. The background becomes the foreground; the artist’s private obsessions—ruminative, claustrophobic, maybe even alienating—swell to fill the frame.

Buy: Rough Trade


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