It is not an overstatement to say that South London’s William Emmanuel Bevan is more than simply an influential artist. He is one of a small number of music makers who have defined this decade. Two LPs – his 2006 self-titled debut and Untrue a year later – along with a string of EPs have contributed greatly to the elevation of electronic ambient music to genuine sound art.
This two-and-a-half-hour collection of material produced for 15 separate EPs; all of them for Hyperdub. It is a useful retrospective because it does more than just catch us up. It showcases the breadth of Bevan’s work. Hearing it all together in one 17-track package is just as inspiring as it is pleasing.
Things get rolling with the moody “State Forest.” Just one of the beatless beauties featured here. Bevan’s gorgeous combinations of drones, found sounds and glitch elements have earned him the kind of global reputation achieved by a very few avant-garde artists.
Part of what’s striking about this first track, and the other similarly constructed pieces that follow, is how much new electronic music is informed by the Burial sound. It’s not difficult to imagine younger listeners assuming these tracks have come off an up-and-comer’s laptop. Such is the outsized influence of Bevan’s discography.
Track three – “Subtemple” – opens with a soulful vocal sample, another staple of the Burial oeuvre. The placement of decontextualized vocal snippets in electronic music predates Bevan by many years of course. But has anyone done it like him before? By consistently drawing on soul music vocals, and by pairing them intermittently with turntablist techniques, Burial infuses even his most abstract work with real emotion. Somehow, even his zero-beats-per-minute tracks are groovy.
The tracks are not presented chronologically. Bevan chose the order himself, leaning heavily on the most atmospheric works up front. Tracks like “Beachfires,” “Young Death” and “Night Market” are darkly picturesque.
Then comes “Hiders” and a dramatic shift in mood. “There’s a kid somewhere,” we’re told in a spoken-word clip. An optimistic synth line is repeated; the vibe is low-key excitement. We’re all that kid. All of us fascinated by electronic music and its thrilling potential. When the beats kick in mid-track, the collection’s next chapter has opened.
What becomes increasingly clear in what follows is Bevan’s love of electronic dance music. Part of what makes him so unique is that he’s found a way to reference that music, without following in its footsteps. He doesn’t make dance music (he has; but you take my meaning), he makes music about dance music.
“Come Down To Us” is breathtaking. “Rival Dealer” is cinematic. “Kindred” makes it difficult to sit still. Tracks like these don’t share the timeless nature of his more ambient-oriented pieces. But that’s really the point. He is documenting this moment in electronic music history at the same time he’s contributing to it.
The Moderns, vols. 1 and 2, by Kevin Press are available exclusively from Amazon.