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All are Welcome in the Temple: Matt Austin on Burial's "Subtemple"

It's been a decade since Burial put out anything resembling a traditional album, preferring the 12" format for his increasingly long, expansive compositions. Along with evolving past anything resembling common song forms, the concrete details of his aural city have become increasingly abstracted. Metal jingles, water is poured. Burial is "cinematic" in the way movies unfold, focusing on one element and then another, letting the places bleed together. There's a storyline: the rattle of a spray paint can, the hum of fast food restaurant lights, the squeal of bus brakes. Someone familiar with the geography of South London could probably trace the songs’ path in the early morning hours.

The title "Subtemple" evokes the dancefloor-as-church espoused by the DJ-centric rave culture of early 90s UK, but the track is a thick fog of low tones, disembodied voices, and unidentified percussion, with nothing resembling a normal beat. It flows as a journey through a theoretical temple, like a roving camera, smoothly floating through a structure in an environment like 90s CD-ROM game Myst. The listener is treated to an exploded-view of techno, drum and bass, and ambient music, with the individual components un-tethered from their original context and floating in slow-motion through a void. The click of something mechanical (a ratchet perhaps) appears early in the track, possibly an echo of trap music's love of 16th note hi-hats, but stretched and smeared into a nearly incomprehensible form. Maybe the track is conjuring a temple of dance music in its most primal form, before dance floor edicts split it into competing factions. All are welcome in the temple.

The title could be clever worldplay on Burial’s part, taking the Indian sun temple and twisting it into a photo-negative. While a sun temple is constructed with wheels that can accurately tell the time of day, Burial’s sub temple takes us to the heart of the structure, full of dark corridors, echoing voices, and distant footsteps. A voice sings “took you so long” at the beginning of the track, calling out to someone. A voice whispers “All that’s left is the procedure” near the end, an enigmatic phrase with no resolution. What procedure? We know that the 2013 track “Come Down to Us,” from the Rival Dealer EP, was meant as an anti-bullying track, and included a speech from transgender director Lana Wachowski. That’s all conjecture, but maybe it continues the theme of the Rival Dealer, but on a much more personal, less political, path.

B-side "Beachfires" sends the listener into the flames, until you're finally subsumed and become one with the fire. Imagine being high on a mind-expanding drug, sitting on a desolate beach as a fire of driftwood crackles in front of you. Stare into the fire too long and the heat will burn your corneas and scorch your brain, leaving you unable to look away. While most Burial tracks are constructed from a relatively large amount of samples, “Beachfires” sticks to a handful of long, abstract tones, occasionally puncturing the veil with metallic clatters and intense, but short-lived basslines. The tones each bring a different light to the mix: beginning with dissonant rumbles, they give way to echoing minor-key melodies, gentle synthesizer notes, and distorted bass notes. These elements fade in and out of the mix, like figures in the shadows.

About halfway through the nearly nine-minute track, the sound fades to nearly nothing, before starting back up again with the same tones as the beginning. Was the figure on the beach afraid of the fire, but has now decided to take a chance with a flame that doesn’t seem to burn? The elliptical track ends nearly where it began, with the addition of some very flame-sounding crackles. Then again, that could be the sound of vinyl, and the whole time the figure was really in their room, listening to the track by themselves.


Matthew Austin is a writer and graphic designer. He lives with his wife just outside of Washington, DC.

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