As one of the last sets in the long-running DJ series, FABRICLIVE 100 seems almost willfully perverse, a pointed attempt to upset notions of what Burial is really about.
A few years ago, deep in a salt mine outside Krakow, a hooded figure stooped over a DJ mixer and played a set of rumbling, echo-soaked bass music that sure sounded like the work of Burial. The theme of the festival that year was “Surprise,” and many headliners remained unannounced until the moment they took the stage. But in this case, the reveal never came.
It’s still not known who was actually behind the decks. It seems unlikely that it was actually Burial, aka William Bevan, a reclusive Englishman who, since 2005, has cobbled together his inimitable style out of rave-nostalgic breakbeats, mournful R&B a cappellas, and the white noise of rainstorms and vinyl hiss. As far as anyone knows, Burial has never performed anywhere. The smart money, many believe, is on Kode9, aka Steve Goodman, the founder of Hyperdub, the label responsible for the vast majority of Burial’s music, who just happened to be performing at the festival that very weekend. Equipped with a USB full of unreleased Burial tunes, the theory goes, Goodman stood in as Bevan’s proxy.
Whatever the truth of that enigmatic set, the two definitively step up to the decks together on FABRICLIVE 100, which makes for an intriguing combination. Kode9 DJs often; between his club sets and his label curation, his tastes are well known. He favors jagged syncopations and cutting percussion, but even at their toughest, his selections are generally playful. Burial, on the other hand, is more of a blank slate. Since he doesn’t DJ professionally, and since his morose music sounds so uniquely like itself, it’s hard to anticipate what he might bring to the table that doesn’t sound like, well, more Burial. And despite the two men’s close relationship, their styles differ in important ways: Kode9 is all muscle; Burial is all atmosphere. Going into the set, it’s hard to imagine how the two might not end up mixing like oil and water.
In some ways, they do. FABRICLIVE 100 is nothing like a conventional club set or a typical back-to-back, where two selectors trade off behind the mixer every song or two. Long stretches representative of Kode9’s tastes—a block of South African gqom toward the beginning, a home stretch of Chicago footwork toward the end—alternate with detours into early-’90s rave music and electro-pop that we can probably assume came from Burial’s crates. In places, FABRICLIVE 100 seems almost willfully perverse, a pointed attempt to upset listeners’ notions of what Burial is really about: Fans who connect primarily with his sad-sack sentimentalism may run for the exits when confronted with the explosion of acid trance that tears through the mix about one-third of the way in. (That’s right: acid trance.) But it’s precisely those curve balls that make FABRICLIVE 100 so entertaining.
It begins straightforwardly enough. First, there’s a gloomy and entirely Burialesque ambient opener of synth drones and vinyl crackle; that’s followed by abstracted vocal processing from Klein, a Hyperdub signee, and a scene-setting bass pulse from Cooly G, another member of Kode9’s squad. In a standard back-to-back set, this is the point where Burial would take over again. But Goodman’s fingerprints are all over the first eight tracks of the set, which blows through a 12-minute, rapid-fire succession of gqom and craggy club music from Uruguay and Shanghai.
Then comes the set’s first major curveball: a garish synth-pop flashback from the techno veteran Luke Slater’s 2002 album Alright on Top. It’s not a record that’s remembered warmly, if at all; the song is a little bit gothic and a whole lot melodramatic. “I can complete you,” sings a robot voice over New Order-inspired bass arpeggios and choral pads, sounding like the epitome of throwback futurism. Yet there’s something to be said for the way they just plop it down here, like someone pulling a semi-embarrassing snapshot from under the bed; there’s a nostalgic sentiment on display that’s in keeping with Burial’s own earnest M.O., and we learn more about him here than a dozen cooler, more underground cuts might ever tell us.
It’s not a conventionally sequenced DJ mix, either: Segments of seamlessly beat-matched tracks (almost certainly Kode9’s handiwork, given the style of them) abruptly give way to left turns and trapdoors. Storming techno cuts simply fade out and make way for slippery, thrashing early-’90s jungle; the beatless parts of drum ‘n’ bass tunes make for escape hatches into the sort of ’90s trance that Burial has hinted at songs like “Indoors.” Whereas Kode9’s considerable DJ skills get him from track to track, the portions of the mix that seem likely to be Burial’s are put together more like collages, with ambient synths and vinyl crackle daubed on like caulk and spackling. You get the sense that they’re not playing records so much as painting with them, often using just enough of a given beat to color the mood before moving on. That goes not just for understated cuts like Cooly G’s “Magnetic” but also for something like Rashad’s “Let It Go,” probably the biggest anthem here—it’s as though they realize that dropping the refrain is all it takes to trigger an emotional response before moving briskly on.
FABRICLIVE 100 is a world away from the smoky intrigue of that subterranean Burial-not-Burial set, but in its own way, it’s every bit as obscured in shadow. We might be able to guess at which selector is responsible for choosing not one but two tunes from Live Adult Entertainment, an industrial-techno label so mysterious that some of its releases have never been sold at all, but how they actually made this thing, and what went through their heads when they were doing it, can only be guessed at. In an era when so much of DJ culture is meant to be consumed under a spotlight, whether on festival main stages or in the center of Boiler Room’s frame, that wiliness counts for something.
The set’s anti-climatic finale, with RP Boo’s “Wicked’Bu,” feels telling. “There is no you/Without a turntable like me,” chants the Chicago producer, as flute runs collide with chopped-up soul vocals and horn blasts in a way that reimagines footwork as free jazz. Eventually, the beat dies away, leaving only a miasmatic churn and a looped declaration, “There is no you…There is no you…” As the two selectors pull the curtain closed, it feels like a refusal to let their process be teased apart.
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