The notes that became this essay were written in 2008, while I was studying in London and restlessly enjoying the latter days of dubstep before it splintered into the million pieces critics lazily conflate with the term “post-dubstep.” Years later, and with so much superior writing on the still very-much-essential Burial, this is something of a throw-away vault piece. Yet, with the popularity of what Americans insist on calling “dubstep,” for better or worse, still in evidence, I thought this down-to-basics relic might be of some interest. I’m not uploading the tunes that form the soundtrack, because I’ve already gotten enough warnings for doing that sort of thing here. (The eclectic formatting is intentional but didn’t transfer to the web that well; I’ll fix it some day.)
/dubstep and urban resonance
This music manages to haunt so many versions of myself : as frightened and lonely in the dark, as wide-eyed and caffeinated, thumbing through philosophy texts, as ponderous bassist, as wounded night-wanderer, as blissed out weekender…it will not leave me alone, and I have not left it alone. To approach it here I’ve tried to craft a schizoid concept album, style variations as suitable to context. There are lingering ideas and fragments that may drift off like Burial’s “embers.” I have rifled through texts opportunistically for samples, like a DJ in a box of used vinyl. I’ve attempted to fill the text with both echo space and 2-steppy paranoia. A running soundtrack elucidates the text (and vice versa, hopefully).
I have focused largely, perhaps excessively, on Hyperdub, namely Kode9 and Burial – who are mostly referred to as such, not as Steve Goodman and William Bevan. It is by now a cliché to remark, if you like him or not, that Burial is sui generis, not part of the dubstep mainstream. My assumption is that if Burial is “oneiric dance music” like k-punk has suggestedi, an analysis of his music, which I see as a trek into the unconscious of dubstep, a blowing up of its otherwise repressed affective tendencies, will be a way of understanding broader musical paradigms – which need not be limited to any particular generic taxon.
I. SOUTHERN DISCOMFORT
An aerial view of South London at night, around Wandsworth Prison. “Burial’s parallel dimension sounds set in a near future South London underwater. You can never tell if the crackle is the burning static off pirate radio transmissions, or the tropical downpour of the submerged city outside the window.”ii
[TRACK:SOUTH LONDON BOROUGHS]
[TRACK: SOUTHERN COMFORT]
If grime is the voice of angry urban London, dubstep is its primary echo, the sound of dread bass reflecting off decaying walls. To feel it, leave the sterile cleanliness of London’s centre. Follow the carrier wave as it heads for the margins, travelling south through Elephant & Castle, via Norwood and Thornton Heath to Croydon: the home of dubstep.iii
This thing we call dubstep of course comes out of Croydon, more specifically a little record store on Surrey St, in the shadow of the Croydon flyover.1
“In the deepest recesses of south London, so deep in fact that it’s not really London anymore, lies a much maligned urban sprawl. Croydon…”iv
Nearest tube station something like five miles away. It is beyond the London postcode system, grime’s territorial shorthand.
[TRACK: WILEY – BOW E3]
Dubstep audaciously realigned the sound of the post-garage ‘nuum to South London: marginal, despised, other than London. Certainly other than East London (Plastic People’s location in Shoreditch notwithstanding). The more obvious acoustic-geographic comparisons are the dead ghosted cities of post-punk – not grime’s inner city decay, spaces like styles imported from New York. Melancholy over madness. The bleak sagging greyscapes of films like Nil by Mouth, incidentally Burial’s favorite London movie. “A geography passing beyond the natural to become metaphysical, only describable in terms of music or abstract physics…”v
Croydon has got the JG Ballard vibes about it. It’s a Ballard area. I imagine Croydon is Shepperton in the south. You’ve got some connections with Ballard haven’t you? Yeah, I mean you know Croydon better than I do, but Croydon seems a bit grimey for Ballard. The Ballard thing is about the suburbs. The future of the city is not urban, it’s suburban and Croydon itself has got loads of suburbs.
But it’s not a hub because there’s nothing there. Is that what’s crucial about Croydon? That there’s nothing…vi
Nothing. Built-in, modernist nothing, a suburb with its own suburbs, a black hole. Disappeared.
…dubstep (and again Burial specifically) is very much about built-up areas, urban space, places that should be bustling with life…. but are now uncannily, eerily empty. Either that, or just lonely-making. Dubstep is desolationist.vii
A melancholy non-place like the one Antonioni depicts in the closing sequence to L’Eclisse – the leading example of what could be called the New Town Symphony. (My only regret is the heavy-handed piano over the closing shot: the quiet buzz of the streetlight would have been much more apropos.) The uneasy flicker and hum of the desolate night, night buses and distant lights, Stevenson’s low growl of London all around – only this time it is the sound of electricity and burning petrol.
“Margins are so key. When has there ever been a good record from central London? Streatham, Bow, Romford, Croydon, Newham, Thornton Heath … it’s all margin music.”viii
“Those who have recorded their impressions of coming into London by the railway from the South, have remarked upon the apparently endless vista of red and brown roofs, dead walls, and little streets which flashed by. The prospect has been compared to that of a sea, or a desert…”ix
It’s already under water. These are already the last days.
II. JUST A SOUND [DUB]
Only her voice and bones are left; at last
only her voice, her bones are turned to stone.
So in the woods she hides and hills around,
For all to hear, alive, but just a sound.
-Ovid, Metamorphoses, III.399-341 [Narcissus and Echo]
There is a self-effacing dread in echo: Kerans hearing his name boom off of dead clock towers in The Drowned World (p. 61). Mrs. Moore in the Marabar Caves:
Echo appears to originate from the locale. It is a kind of haunting, a present perpetually submerged in the immediate past. The soundscape is thick with accretions, not far removed from the world of J.G. Ballard’s The Sound-Sweep, Kode9’s favorite work by the author along with The Drowned World.x Here sound sticks to space and needs to be swept away, exorcised. Music itself has become “hypersonic,” inaudible, only experienced at some unconscious level.
Stimulate the audio nerve directly.
At present our cities are hypersonic as well. Electronic signals beyond the range of human hearing, low-frequency engine roars, overhead flight patterns. A matrix of accidental sounds. Desolate cities as cisterns: reverb machines. Desolation is the prerequisite to echo – a desolation that gets internalized as we are possessed by the ghost of dead sounds, abject sounds that could once have been ours. Isolation, understood simultaneously as social disintegration and lovesick heartache. Echo in tears, Narcissus kissing the water. [BBC: Life in UK “has become lonelier.”xi]
Its use of delay perfectly suited to reflect urban decay…xii
The echoed voice is suddenly inhuman – thrown back at us, more alien with each reiteration. Speech into sound, a withering of signification. The echoed voice is fragmented, denied a posture of logocentric presence. We are dispossessed of it. It now belongs to space, the medium becomes the message.
[TRACK:I AM SITTING IN A ROOM]
The voice can be lost in other ways: in deafening thoroughfares, in the rain, in clubs. Or if one has no occasion to speak, as would be the norm in places with built-in reverb. And so plenty if not most dub dispenses with the voice entirely. But the dis-placed human voice lurks as a trace in the underworld of these musics, conspicuous by its absence.
The Spaceape returns as a hostile alien, his voice “immune from dying” in a world of echo. He is uncanny and surreal, his voice itself like a wonky bass pulse. Linton Kwesi Johnson for the [post]-rave generation. England is still a bitch.
Interestingly more than one reviewer objected to the Spaceape track on the first Burial LP, a version of “Victims” but on a record less comfortable with this kind of voice. Pitchfork: “the album’s only genuinely unlikeable moment.”xiii Marcello Carlin on the blog Church of Me: “an intrusive nuisance”xiv That is: hostile, alien. The pounding, militant voice of the subaltern suddenly breaking through the surface of this drowned world is too much for some to bear, evidently.
The “vast, empty and deeply emotional” world of Burial, the haunting desolation of things like “Forgive” with its incoherent voices lost in the rain, becomes paradoxically euphoric: an opiate. Ballardian again, in its embrace of disintegration: Vaughn in a speeding car, Kerans marching toward the equator.
III. BACKWARD [STEP]
But that state of opiated bliss, of an ecstatic return to the womb, was never possible; despite all of this vastness, there is the inescapable epileptic percussion. Dubstep’s breakbeats maintain a state of paranoia, unease. It creates a claustrophobia; movement forwards entails movement backwards.
There is neither the euphoric rush forward of 4/4 House or the propulsive embrace of desolate cityscapes one finds in krautrock, the motorik beat speeding us down the autobahn. Those motorways are sources of anxiety; we – or at least I – often hear the sound of passing cars somewhere in the background of Burial’s tracks, but it is warped, distant, anxious. This jerkiness is what k-punk calls “2-step’s anorgasmic anticipation-plateau;” he interprets this positively, in kind of a Delueze/Guattari mille plateaux sense, in order to argue that Burial is doing something opposed, but it seems to me that this music is in fact haunted and disturbed by its anorgasmia.xv
Perhaps this is because we are not talking about consummation at all, but disintegration and devolution interpreted positively. Back to Ballard, and back to opium. The Drowned World postulates a future in which the death drive of Beyond the Pleasure Principle becomes semi-conscious, and with enthusiasm its characters suicidally rush toward “forgotten paradises,” the painless serenity of inorganic matter. The aqueous aesthetic of immersion displayed in both Ballard’s novel and in dubstep also recalls the “oceanic feeling” of Civilization and its Discontents, the ecstatic sense of ego-dissolution that for Freud is the essence of religious passion, a stand-in for a return to the womb, another kind of devolution.
This is also the logic of opiate literature, a sub-genre that was integral to the psychic landscape of 19th century London and which has left traces in the way certain zones are understood (e.g., Limehouse).
[TRACK:DARKER THAN EAST]
We’re in Wilehouse…it used to be called Limehouse, but since things are so wild around here, it just had to be called Wilehouse. Wildness within, a “dark east” that replicates that darker East. Opiated Celestials haunting the back streets of the East End, or more importantly, the back pages of West End penny newspapers.
Beyond these psychogeographical concerns, part of the inescapable legacy of London, the aesthetic of opium provides a way to understand the latent, ultimately thwarted, desires in this music. Meconium has a song called “No Heroin No Dubstep”: not literally true, of course, but on a metaphorical level it seems perfectly obvious.
It is not for nothing that Burial has a track called Endorphin, featuring a grotesquely echoed voice spilling out into the night in the flicker of “all those flashing lights,” with a moaning voice of pain and desire fading in and out over a sea of bass…
The sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected. Buildings, landscapes, &c., were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to receive. Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. This, however, did not disturb me so much as the vast expansion of time; I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time…xvi
The whole movement of this imagery was inwards and downwards. [Coleridge’s] symbol for the exploration of human personality was always that of a shaft leading down to a huge dark space. In terms of psychoanalysis such dream images are explicable as equivalents of infantile and sexual experiences…xvii
Inwards and downwards: precisely the movement of Burial’s music. Even the name suggests a latent desire for interment. But the jerky anxiety of the drums prevents, ultimately, the capaciousness and expansiveness of the bass & atmospherics from gesturing toward spaces like the sea or vast expanses of ice. This is not “arctic ambient,” these are not whale songs. This sonic space is anxious, striated, vast but tenuous, ephemeral and uncanny. Which is to say essentially urban. There is no “oceanic feeling” here. The return to the womb – like the orgasm – is deferred; we are forced to keep on dancing2, or keep on walking home. The drug analogue for this is not the nothingness of heroin, but caffeine spasms, amphetamine crashes – weary comedowns.
INTERLUDE – DMZ 3
It was sometime after 3 when I left the real world. I don’t know how it happened – I was behind one of the speaker walls, probably prowling for drugs or girls as drunk as I was to kiss in some corner against a wall throbbing with terrifying bass rhythms – a ludicrous fantasy born out of loneliness. There was no girl, but the last thing I remember was chatting, as far as was possible over the noise, with a few West Indian guys. I didn’t give them any money, I know, because I didn’t have any – I had sneaked in to avoid the 12 quid entry fee, because some shit Barclay’s machine across from the Brixton tube station ate my debit card. I didn’t eat for three days after until I could get a new card mailed from the States, but let’s get back behind the speakers…as far as I remember, Kode9 had just come on. I was still shaking off the bottle of Tesco gin I drank before I left – to beat the exchange rate, you had to nearly black out before you left on brand X liquor, and maybe buy one 15 dollar cocktail to keep you leveled at the club if absolutely necessary. This night might well have been, seriously, the historic low point of the US-UK exchange rate, something like 48 pence on the dollar. Being sober at such events as far as I’m concerned is out of the question, because I end up experiencing it primarily as a music critic rather than as a body in space and time…a character flaw, to be sure, but there is something to be said for alcoholic phenomenology. Music is deeper, delay becomes more pronounced. You mimic the music’s submersion and torpor along with its euphoria. The effects in these regards are not unlike the way opium was discussed above…and one of DeQuincey’s principle “pleasures of opium” was going to the Opera. He was the original raver.
In any case I tend to think somebody put something in my drink although I cannot justify this. This all, of course, is very fuzzy. But I do not remember smoking anything, or taking any pill. I’d probably been a perpetrator of more crimes than I could prove to be a victim of, including the classic fake oyster swipe on the back of a bendy-bus on the way down there…but next thing I knew my first girlfriend from when I was about fifteen was relentlessly mocking me, passionately kissing someone who I despised, as a crowd gathered around to laugh at me nearly until their insides fell out. I panicked and fled across the dance floor, remembering the music only as nightmarishly oppressive…I scrambled through the stairways, admittedly confusing when I entered hours earlier, but now Piranesian and impossible to navigate. Miles high. I seem to remember something of a scene in the coat check room which I felt was about 30 stories up the spiral staircase as I got my bag back and sprinted out into the 4am night, to be desperately lost in South London until well after dawn…
And I had nearly been driven insane by Steve Goodman.
[Only the next afternoon when I woke up seeing kaleidoscope patterns, soberly reflecting on the night and my knowledge of drug reactions, did I realize that I had probably taken acid, somehow.]
[TRACK:SHELL OF LIGHT]
Out on the streets, slightly less mad, I found myself living out a Burial tune while listening to Untrue, one of three of four CDs I had with me in London. This is Burial’s domain: after the club, that music simmering, half-remembered. In the dead of night, the point of superlative desolation. These are techno-nocturnes.
The slightest sound is reverberated between the lofty walls of houses, and the echoes of our own footsteps, as we plod quietly along, return to us from the other side of the way, as though some invisible companion dogged our march and mimicked every movement we make.xviii
Not the night, though, of Benga and Coki’s “Night,” paean to night’s licensing of unrepressed energy flows. This is the night after that night. The music deterritorialized, as memory or mp3. To purists this music does not exist.
It’s more about when you come back from being out somewhere; in a minicab or a night bus, or with someone, or walking home across London late at night, dreamlike, and you’ve still got the music kind of echoing in you, in your bloodstream, but with real life trying to get in the way. I want it to be like a little sanctuary. It’s like that 24-hour stand selling tea on a rainy night, glowing in the dark. It’s pretty simple.xix
The next morning my CD player was paused on the middle of the second half of “Shell of Light,” by chance or not the most heartbreaking moment on the album, and who knows how many times I listened to Untrue record that night, or where I went. I have discrete memories of various places in London that could have happened at any point, given the amount I drank and the amount of wandering I did (a brand of lunatic gonzo tourism, ecstatic, aestheticized hedonism: not a gemlike flame but a bonfire, a March to the Sea. The folly of youth.) I have a memory of trying to hail a cab back to King’s Cross from South London and being told it would cost fifty quid, when I realized I had about 20p on me – that could well have been that night. God, I walked up whatever fucking road that was for two hours, nearly crying, utterly lost in the least romantic sense of the term (I enjoy getting lost, enjoy reckless exploration, but also know the utter dread that one risks…)
I’m dying to see densely packed apartment blocks, people on the streets, something to suggest I wasn’t in the middle of nowhere…. Open space became utterly anathema, I wanted 200 story buildings, I wanted to be back in Manhattan. To be surrounded by water. Outer London can feel like a gigantic circular Queens. And those fucking, yellow and white light-up little plastic things on traffic islands they have in the UK – they are the most melancholy objects on the planet to me. I remember them solely through despondent noctambulations – invisible usually, but otherwise promises that you are coming near somewhere remotely centrally located – usually a hopeless promise. Two roads to nowhere coming to a fork. They were all over the outskirts of Bath, on the loneliest night of my life when I was coming off E and copious amounts of alcohol on the outskirts of a city I didn’t know the inskirts of…so inevitably slept in a field in terrible cold. I don’t think I ever went to the Abbey.
IV. RAVE/SPACE (MOURNING AND MELANCHOLIA. UNKNOWN PLEASURES.)
Part of the euphoria of rave was in its reclamation of derelict urban space, or rather, posthumous, marginal, exurban or ex-urban spaces:warehouses, garages3, aircraft hangars…
It wasn’t a barn. It was an aircraft hangar. The only time you see anything like it is in those ‘Old Testament’ films with a cast of thousands. All too much to be real. So many people dancing.xx
The accoutrements of a Ballard novel. A very Thatcherite, suburban dystopia unexpectedly carnivalized. Rave was the bacchanaliazation of post-war urban planning nightmares; the M25, erstwhile a strange loop to nowhere or to itself, a quarantine fence at best, lent its name to Orbital’s ecstatic project. The city had been abandoned to a future without cities, but now this liminal spaces licensed the collective realization of displaced fantasties. The Zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker becomes the Temporary Autonomous Zone of Hakim Bey.
Enter the 1990s. This story has been told. By 2008, I’m on line at Ministry of Sound, waiting to be sucked through airport-style metal detectors. [codified nightlife, Dionysus now with a SECURITY tee and a walkie talkie]. These things set off strange associations…the twin bomb plots of 2007, Tiger Tiger and Glasgow International Airport being exchangeable targets. The latter coming second, almost a cop out. Drunkenness is the principle growth market in the advanced capitalist cities, their raison d’etre. Tiger Tiger is more obvious than the City, a placeless place filled with distant people from bedroom towns, the affluent homeless.
As the whiteshirted flashlighters stomp about this machine, I also wonder what a skreamix of Music for Airports would sound like…more site-appropriate, to be sure.
Most of these performers are not all that much older than me. They have inherited the same nostalgia.
But I also love the euphoric stuff that’s in UK tunes too. I feel like it was stolen from us…I’m too young to have ever gone to a warehouse rave, but I want to show the ravers that someone is still holding a light for that old sound…that the signal is still out there.xxi
The thing about holding a light is that it could only be necessitated by a distressing darkness. Much of this darkness is simply the persistence of the bleak cityscape that rave temporarily transformed.
I live next to a prison so that’s half of the view from my room, the other half is prison land. I think where gallows used to be but I dunno, doubt it. The rest is a fucking massive dual carriage way all the way from Streatham down towards the Thames. You can see for miles all the way to the river, past the river and when it’s foggy like it was today, it’s a mad view.xxii
This partially explains the sense of bittersweet longing toward these spaces. An overwhelmingly negative relationship to dead cities gives you dystopian cyberpunk, gives you industrial post-punk, things like Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten.
Those visions are here too, but are always in tense relationship with a nostalgia that softens them.
Burial is an elegy for the hardcore continuum, a Memories from the Haunted Ballroom for the rave generation. It is like walking into the abadoned spaces once carnivalized by raves and finding them returned to depopulated dereliction. Muted air horns flare like the ghosts of raves past. Broken glass cracks underfoot. MDMA flashbacks bring London to unlife in the way that hallucinogens brought demons crawling out of the subways in Jacob’s Ladder’s New York. Audio hallucinations transform the city’s rhythms into inorganic beings, more dejected than malign. You see faces in the clouds and hear voices in the crackle. What you momentarily thought was muffled bass turns out only to be the rumbling of tube trains.xxiii
There is a lot of overlap between Burial and Joy Division, though, with Martin Hannett’s echo production techniques evoking the dreary landscape of post-industrial Manchester – an environment even Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, who have hopelessly tried to argue against miserablist readings of the band’s music, admit inspired their playing. A song like Shadowplay is firmly in Hyperdub territory, the 1978 Granada TV bit even interlaced with lonesome highways in negative.
the center of the city at night. the depths of the ocean. waiting for you. the assassins grouped in four lines.
Croydon Flyover (Eric Hands, 200?)xxiv: A photograph that should be sent back in time to the inbox of a young Peter Saville
But Joy Division could look back only to a city that could offer them, at best, better employment opportunities. Maybe Northern Soul. Madchester was beyond the realm of possibility in the 1970s. There is nothing redeeming in the city of Shadowplay. Burial by contrast is looking back on that other desolate city as a site of (lost) possibility, and because of this nostalgia is far more elegaic than Joy Division, who have nothing comparable to mourn. Appropriately, the Ballard reference of choice for them is The Atrocity Exhibition, rather than The Drowned World.
Still pursuing the path that’s been buried for years,
All the dead wood from jungles and cities on fire,
Can’t replace or relate, can’t release or repair,
Take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be…
…a city paralysing itself in fear of blackened steel, perpetually on the point of total detonation.xxv
The nostalgia can turn sour as well, and many of these songs are simply ominous. The death drive displaced onto the city surfaces and reabsorbed as echo. The city about to be drowned, not by degrees but by catastrophe, a sudden critical mass.
Kode9 at least is obsessed with a kind of technofuturism. The cyberpunk aesthetic is a touchstone here. Goodman’s work is infused with the dread of future-war, the most dramatic manifestation of dubstep’s characteristic paranoia.
1. The angular momentum of breakbeat culture provides a sonic simulation of hyperurban meltdown. Not an analogy but a cartographic isomorphism opening sonic production onto a war continuum which deposits localised chaosmosis on every scale. ‘Jungle’s basic problem’- how to sustain rhythmic asymmetry, nurture the swerve, sustain the turbulence- ‘what degree of stratification is required to get distributed?’xxvi
His CCRU texts are riddled with militarized language, an uneasiness with the silent complacent posthumous city that goes beyond either desolation or longing, toward a fear of imminent doom…
2. Machinic night-vision reports from the dark side of the Occident, mapping the interlock of desiring machines, social megamachines and war machines as technology converges with biology in computerised control societies.
3. Planetary capital flow redistributes bringing novel mutations along the axes of East-West and North-South. “The more the world-wide axiomatic installs high industry and the highly industrialised agriculture at the periphery, provisionally reserving for the center so-called post-industrial activities (automation, electronics, information technologies, the conquest of space, overarmourment etc.), the more it installs peripheral zones of underdevelopment inside the center, internal Third Worlds, internal Souths.’xxvii
He gestures toward a sonic archeology of the invisible, a fractal “turbulence” that flows in undercurrents through the unconscious of a late capital-ist London and and its cryptic marginalia [Cuius rei demonstrationem mirabilem sane detexi. Hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet.],“internal Souths” of social marginalization and sonic ferment.
Burial’s drums are literally weapons: scratching knives, videogame samples of machine gun shells hitting the ground, lighters igniting. Atmospherics for a militarized London post 7/7.
2005 – the only thing I remember properly was at 9am on the 7th of July. I was walking across London crossing from south into central London. I usually get Northern Line but had to go a different way ‘cos the underground was fucked. I had headphones on; I was listening to tunes, just lost in it but I could tell vibes around me were offkey and weird. You could feel it. So I took the headphones off and overheard people saying all this stuff. People were ringing me but getting cut off.xxviii
This aspect of Burial’s music, as terrorism dirge, exhibiting a paranoia as something deeper than a TV-spawned epiphenomenon, is – as far as I can tell – not often attended to. Successfully repressed, buried, but flickering as ultrasonic “embers in the tune”xxix…
…its vinyl crackles sounding like London burning down forever.xxx
vPeter Ackroyd, London: The Biography, page 757
ixPeter Ackroyd, London: The Biography, page 680
xSimon Sellars, “A Ballardian Burial.” http://www.ballardian.com/a-ballardian-burial. Kode9, appearing in daylight as Steve Goodman, discussed Ballard’s sonic aesthetic as one of “urban delay.” This presentation was not, to my knowledge, transcribed or recorded, and is thus, appropriately, inaudible.
xviThomas DeQuincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Penguin Classics edition, p. 76.
xviiHayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, p. 248
xxBrian Belle-Fortune, All Crews: Journeys Through Jungle / Drum and Bass Culture