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Listening to Burial at the end of the world

On Dec. 30, 2021, wildfires ignited and tore through Boulder County in Colorado. By the next day, residential streets like this one in Louisville were unrecognizable: houses leveled, cars stripped to bare metal.
Hart Van Denburg
CPR News
On Dec. 30, 2021, wildfires ignited and tore through Boulder County in Colorado. By the next day, residential streets like this one in Louisville were unrecognizable: houses leveled, cars stripped to bare metal.

A few years ago, during what would be my last of four frigid Minneapolis winters, I noticed a ritual had embedded itself into my evening commute. I was reporting for a local newspaper at the time, my first job out of college, in a city where people take pride in their ability to withstand the elements.

Each time, the same sequence unfolded from muscle memory: wait to board the bus, find a seat by the window, pull my headphones on over my beanie, choose a soundtrack. On nights when I felt particularly introverted, the honor went to songs by the British electronic producer Burial. I would burrow inside the worlds he created, comforted by the vinyl crackle that runs like a current under his music, as the blurry streetlights outside dotted my own reflection. Listening turned my mere loneliness into solitude, making the long winter nights — and the sadness that came with them — make sense.

Since his earliest releases, Burial has made music for secret, hidden moments like these, informed by the fog and rain of his own South London. Though his palette — an array of distorted vocals, broken beats and falling shell casings — hasn't changed much over the years, the worlds he paints with it have. After 2013's Rival Dealer, he ventured away from the dance floor, writing starker pieces about smoldering "Beachfires" and a forgotten "State Forest." There were no drums, only echoes. These landscapes were dimmer and even further removed from society, and in time it became harder to see myself in them, harder to relate.

That all changed in December. I was finishing my first year as a climate and environment reporter in Colorado. We had reached the end of the year without a major wildfire, unlike in 2020, when the three largest fires in state history burned hundreds of thousands of acres of forest land. We were still in extreme drought — Denver went a disturbing 232 days without a significant snowfall — but it seemed like we had avoided the worst for now.

On Dec. 30, 2021, two days before the new year, a grass fire ignited about 26 miles northwest of Denver. Winds gusting at more than 100 miles an hour fanned the flames toward the suburban communities of Superior and Louisville, torching neighborhoods and clouding the skies with thick, gray smoke. The fire kept spreading through the night, until the winds died down and snow fell over the smoldering towns. The Marshall fire would become the most destructive in Colorado history, with more than 1,000 homes burned to the ground and at least one confirmed death.

I was out of the state when the fire happened. Back at work the following week, I drove up to the burn scar to see it for myself. Pulling off the highway and into residential neighborhoods, I saw cars stripped to their frames, buildings brought to the ground. I spoke with a pair of sisters next to the remains of their two-story childhood home, now leveled. Across the street, a man stood on top of the rubble piled in the middle of his property. That's where the front door used to be, he told me, pointing at a blank space on the ground. There were people and memories connected to these places and objects, but all I knew were the ruins.

Back in Denver, I filed my interviews and wrote my stories. Later that week, unable to sleep and staring at my phone, I saw that Burial had released his latest EP, ANTIDAWN. "Just the vapours," read the online promotional blurb. I put it on and fell back to bed.

At 43 minutes, ANTIDAWN is Burial's longest project since his 2007 breakthrough, Untrue. Its five long tracks seem to exist in spaces where light does not — the edges of the solar system, the depths of a cavern, the bottom of the ocean. Mournful organs and synths fill the open space with the kind of chords that carried '90s pop ballads like Sinead O'Connor's version of "Nothing Compares 2 U." Sampled vocals drift in and out of frame, stretched out and frayed, haunting whatever happens to pass in their direction. "Nowhere to go," croaks a voice in the opening track, "Strange Neighbourhood." "I'm in a bad place," moans another, distorted and despondent. A thin voice sings for "somewhere, in the darkest night," cosmic synths swelling underneath.

Curled up in bed, I couldn't help but think of what I hadn't seen on my trip. I thought of children riding bicycles down those streets, a patio table where friends gathered in summer, the pages of a book and the person engrossed in it. Burial had used the ghostly shapes of memories like these to build a cold, desolate world. But inside my head, they did the opposite, helping recreate what the neighborhoods left behind by the Marshall fire might have once looked like.

Music that uses the language of decay often has this duality to it, where grief and comfort are sides of the same coin. Composer William Basinski dedicated his seminal early 2000s work, The Disintegration Loops, to the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, his crumbling tape loops evoking and memorializing the fallen towers. On last year's "Days Like These," Minnesota duo Low used distortion and reverb to overwhelm the listener, reflecting the sensory overload of daily life in validating terms. Marvin Gaye's environmental anthem "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" puts the decay in the lyrics, Gaye singing sweetly about the destruction of the world he once knew — yet the music is exploratory and persevering, changing keys near the end to nudge us forward. That song was recorded 50 years before the Marshall fire, and the world has changed with ever greater intensity since. In 2021 alone, wildfires scorched Canada and Greece, floods washed away villages in Germany and drought threatened water supplies in the Western U.S.

As a reporter covering climate change, I've always felt swallowed by these calamities. There are always new fires, new record temperatures, new reports warning us of what lies ahead. Looking at the Marshall fire burn scar with my own eyes, I couldn't even comprehend the destruction in front of me. I kept wishing that it had never happened, that the winds weren't as strong that day, that there was some snow on the ground to keep the flames from spreading. I struggled with the idea that only a few miles away, my apartment and neighborhood were standing like they were the day before.

And yet, the music was a relief. If Burial's discography had often felt to me like a foreboding signal from the near future, I could see in ANTIDAWN that the future was already here. This is the reality we live in, it assured me. The consequences of climate change are playing out right in front of us. In that moment, I was at peace with whatever lurked in the darkness. The threat persisted, but in terms I could grasp, in ruined remnants I could perceive with my own senses. Feeling grounded, I was ready to move forward.

Burial, aka William Bevan, poses in a characteristically cryptic publicity photo for <em>ANTIDAWN</em>.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Burial, aka William Bevan, poses in a characteristically cryptic publicity photo for ANTIDAWN.

To me, Burial is music made for these ruins and the people left to see them. His vocal samples remind you that someone is there, or was there, or is lighting the way just a little further ahead. His drums, though rarer in his music now, still pulse you forward. The crackle and hiss still keep you warm. It may not be the same world that once existed, but it's still our world, one where it's not too late to learn from what we're seeing. A voice in "Come Down to Us," the melodramatic centerpiece of Rival Dealer, offers a bridge between what was and what is: "Don't be afraid to step into the unknown."

"If you alone could hear someone upset on the other side of the world, then maybe then you could do something about it," Burial told journalist Mark Fisher in 2007, around the release of Untrue. "I was once in these mountains. You'd see these fires, other people sleeping out in the mountains, traders across the border. And that gives you this feeling: nighttime, awareness of other people sleeping. But all it is just a firelight. You see their firelight and you know they are there. That's all you need."

As I finished my tour of the burn scar, snow began to fall, obscuring my vision and blanketing the ground in white. Driving back toward the highway, I felt some of that same quiet, secret solitude I'd felt riding the bus on those dark winter nights in Minneapolis. The cars on the road moved slowly, carefully, headlights cutting through the snow, guiding us all home. The snow is falling outside my window now, as I write and listen. But beyond it, the firelights burn, letting me know we're still here.

Miguel Otárola is a climate and environment reporter for Colorado Public Radio.

Copyright 2022 CPR News

Miguel Otárola