[Essay] Like a Ghost Touched Your Heart: Burial’s Sonic Hauntology — Edward Campbell-Rowntree

Sometimes you get that feeling like a ghost touched your heart, like someone walks with you.

— Burial*

A1 // Intro //

In the mid-2000s a number of popular music critics began employing the term ‘hauntology’ in relation to a diverse collection of electronic music producers whose aesthetic was marked by a sense of nostalgia, melancholia, or the uncanny. The concept served as a useful critical tool in diagnosing the cultural stagnation brought about by late capitalism, symptoms of which included the imitation of ‘dead’ styles, the reuse of obsolete formats and technologies, and a reimagining of the past. While the concept of hauntology has found currency across various domains of (sub)cultural theory—as in k-punk’s (Mark Fisher’s) psycho-historical reading/viewing of The Shining or T. J. Demos’s diagnosis of ‘colonial spectres’ present in contemporary art—its use in popular music discourse has remained firmly rooted to a specific ‘spatio-temporal imaginary’: Britain in the 1960s and 1970s.[1] However, these applications of hauntology can be extended to address how the act of sampling within electronic music creates and upholds what might be called ‘sonic hauntologies’: sounding relationships with historicised sound-worlds, cultures and media. The work of British producer William Emmanuel Bevan (aka Burial), in particular, relies on a distinct use of sampling to conjure emotive and evocative—but most importantly, ghostly—associations with a confluence of underground dance music cultures including jungle, rave, drum ‘n’ bass, UK garage, 2-step, grime and dubstep, or what Simon Reynolds has broadly conceptualised as the ‘hardcore continuum’.[2] An exploration of Burial’s music through a selection of its constituent samples highlights the intricate networks and structures present in sample-based electronic music, with ‘sonic hauntologies’ being only one of many possible conceptual lenses through which to discuss samples and their sonic exchanges.

A2 // Hauntology // Archangel(s)

Jacques Derrida’s compounding of ‘haunting’ and ‘ontology’ was formulated as a response to the burgeoning presence of leftist ideology in Europe following the fall of Communism in 1989.[3] While Francis Fukuyama was celebrating the defeat of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ at the hands of liberal democracy, Derrida insisted that such ideologies could continue to enact on the present as a spectral agency operating outside of traditional ontological boundaries, much like the ‘spectre of communism’ haunting Europe in the opening of The Communist Manifesto (1848). Thinking beyond the oppositions of presence and non-presence, life and non-life, Derrida invoked a semantics of illusion (gespenst) to reimagine the actors of history in terms of the ghosts, phantoms and simulacra who inhabit the present without residing in it; or, in other words, those who influence our world without ever actualising their own presence.

The concept of hauntology was first used in relation to music by the late Mark Fisher (aka k-punk) in 2005, when he applied the term to the Ghost Box label, whose discography aims to explore the ‘misremembered musical history of a parallel world’.[4] For Fisher, both the music and accompanying artwork released on the Ghost Box label by artists such as Belbury Poly and The Focus Group explored a simulated, alternative future that might have been envisaged in the 60s and 70s but never fully realised (at least in our own timeline): an artificial extension of a sonic continuum filled with phantoms of ‘the half-forgotten, the poorly remembered and the confabulated’.[5] This repurposing of Derrida’s concept was cultivated primarily in the online blogosphere and subsequently applied to a broad range of art-forms and subcultures such as Afrofuturism, the paintings of Peter Doig, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, to name a few.[6] This hermeneutic diversity attests to hauntology’s usefulness as a concept within cultural theory, but the broad range of its applications and meanings has led to some uncertainty as to whether hauntology denotes an aesthetic quality, a musical genre, or a more general sense of stasis perceived in postmodern culture — it is, of course, all of these.

This has been further complicated by a preoccupation of twenty-first century pop culture with themes of nostalgia, revival, and memory, or what Simon Reynolds has called ‘retromania’.[7] The return to analogue media in the context of the digital age by such artists as William Basinski and The Caretaker, as well as the re-emergence of the ‘lo-fi’ aesthetic that characterised the hypnagogic pop (h-pop) and chillwave movements of the noughties were acutely perceived by some critics as a ghostly reminder of lost futures; a simulacrum of forgotten sonic continuums enacting on the (then) present.[8] An enormous variety of cultural epochs and movements may be considered hauntological, should they include the traces of unremembered histories or forgotten futures that were relegated to the cultural afterlife before they were actualised in the ‘real’ world. This widening of aesthetic ontologies has encouraged a broad reexamination of even the most familiar cultural endeavours: writing histories, telling stories and painting pictures can all be conceptualised through the lens of hauntology.[9]

Sampling — that is, the reconstitution and arrangement of prerecorded sounds (musical or otherwise) into something fundamentally different yet (potentially) still recognisable — is, in many ways, a hauntological act. Sample-based music affords a new existence to old sounds, a new reality that reinvents the audio fragment as something simultaneously old and new, both present and absent. As phenomena that reproduce the gestures and expressions of the departed, the no longer here, recordings themselves hold the power of resurrection—of exorcism.[10] If sound-recording and sound-reproduction technologies emerged out of a nineteenth-century culture of embalming and preserving the dead, as Jonathan Sterne has argued, then sampling and re-sampling constitute the hauntological resounding of the deceased from beyond the grave; an audible repetition on behalf of the (un)dead.[11]

When Burial’s eponymous debut album was released on the Hyperdub label in 2006, critics were quick to invoke a terminology of the uncanny in their reviews. Simon Pitchforth proclaimed ‘the ghosts of recent black UK musical culture swirl around the aural stratosphere’, and Tim Finney perceived an overriding atmosphere of ‘of homelessness and rootlessness…[a] feeling that something important has been mislaid.’ [12] Certainly, there were extramusical factors that contributed to this reception, such as the shadowy depiction of the London skyline on the album sleeve, textual references to post-industrial urban life in the capital in track titles such as ‘Night Bus’ and ‘South London Boroughs’, as well as Burial’s general anonymity from the public sphere that was not revealed until 2008 via his MySpace blog.[13] However, it is Burial’s music which speaks the loudest, and his evocation of found and prerecorded samples sourced from the hardcore continuum is what contributed most to the reception of his music as hauntological.

A3 // The Hardcore Continuum // UK

Sampling has been an important creative mode within many genres of electronic music which operate within Simon Reynold’s concept of the ‘hardcore continuum’, which he describes as a ‘musical tradition/subcultural tribe’ that has consistently negotiated ‘drastic stylistic shifts and significant changes in technology, drugs, and the social/racial composition of its own population.’[14] In short, Reynolds has argued for the existence of a lineage of styles and scenes that started with the early manifestations of hardcore rave and hardcore techno in early 90s London, and since went on to encompass a broad horizon of genres ranging from the murky jungle tracks released on labels such as Metalheadz and Certificate 18, to the groove-driven UK garage and bassline which found its articulation on the airwaves of illegal pirate radio stations that were broadcast from the tower blocks of East London. Rather than an assortment of particular spaces and places, the hardcore continuum is best thought of, Fisher says, as a ‘consistent and durable matrix of reconfigurable sonic options’ that allows for the generation and regeneration of myriad subcultures and genres.[15] While tempo and style have shifted dramatically between genres over the past thirty years, the basic parameters underpinning the hardcore continuum have remained the same, with an emphasis on sub-bass frequencies, groove oriented drum patterns and, perhaps most importantly, sampling as the primary means of musical construction.  

Given the range of styles and movements it attempts to incorporate into a singular sonic history, the concept of the hardcore continuum has been criticised for the risk of homogenising a disparate assortment of sub-cultures and movements whose participants may rightfully wish to be recognised beyond the moniker of ‘hardcore’. Furthermore, Reynolds has occasionally used the concept to describe an implied teleology that suggests the destruction of real-life communicative links between DJs, producers and consumers brought on by the capitalist dissolution of the underground — through corporate club culture, music streaming services and the internet more generally — has led to a stagnation of artist’s potential to create progressive, innovative and popular dance music.[16] While it is difficult to refute the sonic and social similarities that work across the musics considered part of the continuum, the hardcore continuum’s all-encompassing scope seems to deny the cultivation of a new paradigm comparable to 90s hardcore culture, both in terms of creative originality and social impact. Amongst younger generations of producers and listeners, this is particularly frustrating. In general, however, the hardcore continuum provides a useful historical basis for theorising how a wide range of dance music styles interact with one another across changing social and technological environments.

In an anonymous interview with Mark Fisher in 2006, Burial attests to his deeply personal relationship with the hardcore continuum when he describes his experiences of listening to genres such as jungle and old-school, which he regards as ‘a pure UK style of music’, and that he ‘wanted to make tunes based on what UK underground hardcore tunes mean to me’, attending to both his admiration of the hardcore tradition and active participation within it.[17] Unlike previous generations who were exposed to the continuum through the attendance of illegal raves or warehouse parties that characterised nightlife in the 90s, it was Burial’s older brother who introduced him to hardcore related music via the mediums of mixtape cassettes and pirate radio broadcasts. Citing influences such as ‘[Adam F’s] ‘Metropolis’, Reinforced, Paradox, DJ Hype, Foul Play, DJ Krystl, Source Direct and techno tunes…’, Burial’s auditory upbringing through the sounding residuals of UK club-culture endowed him with a second-hand experience of these genres outside of their primary social space—the nightclub. Instead, Burial’s listening was domestically oriented in the urban landscapes of south London, perhaps foreshadowing the hauntological relationship with his own music and the hardcore continuum.

Other DJs and producers involved in underground dance music culture have also heard Burial’s music in terms of its relationship to the hardcore continuum. In a recent edition of Boiler Room’s Contemporary Classics series, the DJs Benji B and Blackdown discussed Burial’s second and most commercially successful album, Untrue, paying particular attention to its sonic and emotional relationships with music of the continuum. While not explicitly invoking the concept of hauntology, Benji B’s vivid descriptions of Burial’s music speak to a sense of nostalgia and reminiscence evoked by the ghosts and phantoms of UK hardcore culture. He interprets Untrue as ‘a sum of the parts of the music that was ten years before it’, and goes on to describe a ‘euphoria that comes out of the record…which is a uniquely British rave feeling…something that I can’t really put into words…[he] wasn’t copying the records of the 90s, it was almost expressing the feeling of what it was like to listen to them.’[18] This illuminating description already alludes to an uncanny relationship between Burial’s music and the hardcore continuum, and is just one of a number of personal accounts that attests shared sensibility of loss and remembrance that listeners of Burial’s music frequently claim to experience.

While the influence of the hardcore continuum is undeniably present (and non-present) in Burial’s work, its actualisation in musical terms is more difficult to articulate. To aid this understanding, the following criteria might be used to conceptualise how Burial’s music interacts with the hardcore continuum:

  1. Source location, concerning the origin of the sampled material and as a consequence, any causal relationships the sample upholds with its point of conception. 
  2. Audio processing, accounting for how the processes of mutation, transformation and manipulation are achieved through a variety of studio production techniques, and how these influence a sample’s compositional function within a track.
  3. Cultural signification explores how a sample may exhibit extended meanings beyond its sounding instance, and to what extent listeners can participate with this through prior auditory or cultural knowledge.

Applying these broad principles to Burial’s music shifts the emphasis away from more conventional discussions of electronic music based on formal analysis and dance-floor functionality and towards a more nuanced understanding of the complex relationships between sampled material and its usage.[19]

Before turning to a more detailed discussion of Burial’s music, it is worth noting the distinctiveness of his audio production techniques. Rather than using other digital audio workspaces (DAWs) such as Logic and Ableton, which offer virtual software technologies (VSTs), Burial’s production takes place in Sound Forge, a digital audio editing software that does not allow for the creation of new sounds, only their arranging and processing. The implication, here, is that all the samples that constitute Burial’s music can theoretically be traced to a point of origin beyond their sounding immediacy, allowing for an exploration of the complex intricate of sonic relationships between samples and the hardcore continuum.[20]

B1 // Distant Lights

The introduction of ‘Distant Lights’ presents a thick collage of samples and textures, such as white noise, filtered rain, and a metallic striking effect at 0:01, which itself is sourced from the popular PlayStation game Metal Gear Solid 2 (a substantial number of Burial’s other tracks sample from this series, which may suggest potential hauntologies with interactive virtual environments which are beyond the scope of this essay.) At 0:04 the atmosphere is sharply interrupted by a high-pitched alarm which foregrounds itself above the preceding texture, treated with a large amount of reverb that extends its sounding to the start of the first verse at 0:12, while also being treated to a pitch transposition from F#5 to F5 (which is highly imitative of the doppler effect; a signifier of the departing or already departed.) The siren sounds periodically throughout at 0:30, 2:00, 3:39, and finally at 5:17, when it is transposed down an octave to F4 to signal the end of the track. The immediacy of the sample, both in terms of its contrast with the opening material and its surrounding sonic environment, is audibly striking, conveying at once a sense of distance and proximity due its initial foregrounding in the mix of the track and its substantial treatment with reverb.

While the exact source location of the sample has not been identified, it is the sound of a ‘dub siren’ used primarily in Jamaican dub and reggae music that was influential in the genres of jungle and drum ‘n’ bass that characterised the hardcore continuum from the early 90s.[21] The early use of dub sirens can be found in tracks such as King Tubby’s ‘King Zion Dub’ (1977) and Scientist’s ‘Dance of the Vampires’ (1981), as well as in a variety of jungle and drum ‘n’ bass tracks such as Rude & Deadly’s ‘Give Me a Dubplate’ (1997) and Breakage’s ‘Losing Track’ (2006). Dub sirens, generated through subtractive synthesis and treated with extensive reverb and delay, are usually used within the context of a stock of dub-related samples including exultant synth melodies, Afro-Caribbean drum hits and the declamatory voices of emcees. In ‘Distant Lights’, however, the dub siren serves to highlight the absence of these signifiers: rather than sounding within its original sonic context of socially-oriented bass driven club music, the dub siren is articulated as a ghostly relic within an industrial soundscape of white noise, crackle, rain, and metallic foley. And rather than gesturing an imminent bass drop or fast tempo drum break that would be characteristic of such audio signifiers within the context of the hardcore continuum, the dub siren is recontextualised to signal the arrival of a distorted, industrial and irregular drum pattern which appears at 0:11 and rhythmically underpins the rest of the track.

As the groove proceeds, the principle vocal sample of the track emerges at 0:15 as a heavily processed fragment sourced from the song ‘Emotion’ by Destiny’s Child, in which Kelly Rowland declares ‘Now that I need you…’ The sample is transposed downward from its original starting pitch of A5 to E4, and further treated with filter, reverb and delay, rendering the voice as androgynous, melancholic and otherworldly. At 0:20 and 0:27, a shorter, looped fragment of the voice responds to the opening gesture on the pitches A3 and then B3; rather than possessing any discernible lyrics, the voice here is transfigured to function as a melodic antiphon to its own initial utterance. At 1:16, the sample is treated with additional delay and is high-pass filtered, relegating its spatial position to sound in the background rather than the foreground of the surrounding textures. These manipulations become increasingly complex as ‘Distant Lights’ progresses. For instance, at 1:46, the voice sounds again as it did at the beginning of the track, but is shortly followed by a duplicated version at 1:51 starting on A4 and treated with further high-pass filter and delay. At 2:02 and 2:16 the two voices sound simultaneously, with the upper voice treated with substantial delay that repeats the final syllable ‘you’ up to 2:23. The same happens again at 2:31, with the upper voice pitch-shifted all the way up to D6, the highest discernible pitch in the track, at which point the voice takes on an almost angelic and celestial quality that markedly contrasts with the overall mood of gloominess. The rest of the track is distinguished by these various renderings of the voice at different pitches and levels of process transformation.

Although the source location of the voice used in ‘Distant Lights’ is not to be found in any musical sub-culture explicitly related to the hardcore continuum, Burial’s use of similar studio production techniques and vocal arrangements harks back to those developed by producers of jungle and UK garage throughout the 90s and early 2000s. As Burial mentions in an early interview with Blackdown, ‘I love the way my favourite jungle and UK garage records use samples…instead of having a girl sing all the way through, they just used one line and kept on circling it around…that’s the sound I love, the sound I hear on pirate radio.’[22] A classic example of this technique in action is in the UK garage track ‘Stone Cold’ (1997) by Groove Chronicles, which samples the parts of ‘One in a Million’ by the female R&B vocalist Aaliyah, employing the same processes of reverb and delay. While the processing techniques used in both ‘Distant Lights’ and ‘Stone Cold’ are similar, there are a number of striking differences between the outcome of each track.

Most obviously, the lyrical content of the voice used in ‘Stone Cold’ is celebratory and sensual; phrases such as ‘believe’, ‘desire’, and ‘you don’t know what you do to me’, sound periodically throughout the track attending to themes of sexual expression that were an essential part of 90s club-culture. In contrast, declamatory vocal lines in ‘Distant Lights’ speak to the tropes of sorrow, loneliness and isolationism that have frequently accompanied the reception of Burial’s music as described above. Furthermore, the absence of pitch manipulation in ‘Stone Cold’ retains the qualities of Aaliyah’s voice as recognisably human, feminine and ultimately seductive, while Burial’s dramatic pitch-shifts of Kelly Rowland’s voice remove it so far from its original sonic attributes that it becomes almost unrecognisable; an androgynous phantom of its original self. Certainly, these qualities alone would be enough to afford Burial’s track a hauntological dimension, but Burial’s treatment and application of voice in ‘Distant Lights’ creates a specific sonic hauntological relationship with the sampling techniques utilised in musics of the hardcore continuum. Burial’s repurposing of these sampling methods served to accentuate the non-origin of the original sample instead of its traces; to emphasise the sample’s theoretical distance from the music rather than its presence within it.

One of the more pervasive textural elements of ‘Distant Lights’, which can go early unnoticed, is crackle. The sources of such textures range from the authentic crackle of vinyl records to field recordings of rain and fire. Burial attests to using crackle as a way of hiding or burying sounds, and that ‘crackle sits over [his] drums’ in order to ‘hide the space between them’.[23] The implied emphasis of an aesthetic of concealment rather than exposure creates a manufactured sense of temporal displacement, allowing the illusion that the listener’s experience of the music is already being perceived through second-hand media, either through the grooves of a dusty 12” record or via the pirate radio broadcast that saturated the London airwaves throughout the 90s. In the context of the hardcore continuum, pirate radio stations played a crucial role in developing a sense of community between DJs and listeners who were enthusiastic about music that was not being recognised by the mainstream media due to perceived drug use and illegal activity.[24] These textures are an expressive device in themselves, giving us the impression that we are belatedly tuning into the intermediary frequencies of South London; that we are hearing the phantoms of a broadcast that was never heard.

B2 // Ghost Hardware

In contrast with ‘Distant Lights’, the introduction of ‘Ghost Hardware’ is characterised by a more minimal and sparse texture based on a synth pad that moves from A minor to E minor, the latter of which is arguably the main key of the track (the synth pad in question is once again sampled from the soundtrack to Metal Gear Solid.) At 0:05, a vocal sample sourced from Christina Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’ emerges treated with reverb and delay. This primary vocal hook of the track is a truncated version of the third syllable of ‘suddenly’, which can be quasi-phonetically described as ‘eeh.’ Unlike the uplifting and euphoric attributes of vocal samples used in many dance-floor oriented jungle, UK garage and rave tracks, the audio processing of Aguilera’s voice results in an effect that is otherworldly, supernatural and spectral. And while there is discernible lack of lyrical content, Burial counters this at 0:11 by including a short sample of Scarlett Johansson’s voice from The Girl with the Pearl Earring (2003), in which she exclaims ‘you looked inside me…’, alluding to themes of interiority and subjectivity seemingly at odds with the groove-based drums and sub-bass frequencies which are set in motion at 0:13.

The dense collage of vocal samples used throughout ‘Ghost Hardware’ originate from a variety of disparate and contrasting sources. At 0:13, an unidentified vocal sample, warmly saturated with reverb, conjoins the ambient introduction to the ensuing drum groove, and at 0:43 a new voice declares ‘love you’, originally sourced from a cover of Bobby Valentino’s ‘Turn the Page’ by Dondria Nicole, a self-uploaded YouTube video recorded on a webcam and its internal microphone. In marked contrast with the warm, high fidelity attributes of the Christina Aguilera sample used in the introduction, the voice here is distinguished by its granular impurities as a result of low-quality recording equipment. As the track proceeds, a new fragment of Aguilera’s voice, treated with extensive reverb and delay, cries ‘oh no’ at 1:21, and another sample of Dondria Nicole can be heard at 2:50, declaring ‘it’s so hard for me to love you.’ This basic, somewhat crude, deconstruction of Burial’s vocal science is necessary in demonstrating the composite processes of reshaping and repurposing vocal fragments which take place in this music, and while this use of vocal manipulation is a technique clearly developed from musics of the hardcore continuum, it is used in the context of ‘Ghost Hardware’ to construct an entirely new and different mode of expression that has yet to be properly recognised in popular music scholarship. As Adam Harper rightfully points out, Burial’s reengineering of found sound results in ‘junkyard sculptures that point to new and undiscovered worlds of vocal-melodic expressivity.’[25]

The drum groove that emerges at 0:14 can be heard as a mutated version of the conventional beat found in most UK garage tracks from the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly in the work of garage DJ and producer El-B. In the Contemporary Classics series discussed above, Blackdown alludes to a concept of rhythmic science shared between Burial’s music and many styles of the hardcore continuum: swing. After playing El-B’s track ‘El-Brand [vocal mix]’ (2000) to draw attention to rhythmic similarities with Burial’s music, Blackdown describes a rhythmic attribute of successful UK garage music as a type of ‘swing’, and that ‘you can hear that in Burial’s music, too, and you can hear it in the sound choices he makes’, but goes on to remark that ‘he [Burial] is doing it in a very different way, and it has a sort of lightness and a fragile-ness to it…they come across as different’.[26] Once again, there is a perceived relationship between Burial’s music and more traditional examples of UK garage from the hardcore continuum that is both easily recognisable for acquainted listeners and eerily difficult to explain or articulate. In generating a sense of swing, Burial’s approach to groove construction is reminiscent of El-B’s productions from the 1990s, but this sense of affinity is sharply offset by other musical features that sound out of place — unconventional percussive sounds, unquantised drum patterns, minor keys and transfigured voices.

The drums are grounded by a pronounced bassline which moves around C3, G2, A2 and E2, processed with distortion, reverb and low-pass filtering, lending it a coarse and granular quality that blends in with the surrounding textures of crackle and foley. The bassline is one of many variations of a sample whose source originates with the Detroit funk producer Kevin Saunderson’s classic track ‘Just Want Another Chance’ (1988), released under the alias Reese, which has come to be known as the ’reese bassline’ in common parlance amongst jungle and drum ‘n’ bass DJs and producers. Notable uses of the sample can be heard in ‘Pulp Fiction’ by Alex Reece (1995) and ‘King of the Beats’ by DJ Aphrodite (1996).[27] The low, resonant frequencies and clean texture of the ‘reese bass’ benefit dance-floor functionality in tracks designed for sound systems, but Burial’s mutation of the sample via the avenues of distortion and reverb grant the sound a completely different quality that, while harking back to earlier examples of UK garage and drum ‘n’ bass, decontextualises it from the familiar sonic environment of the hardcore continuum into a melancholic ballade of industrial soundscapes and supernatural voices. In addition, the high-frequency variable textures of crackle and hiss that feature throughout the track invoke the auditory environment of pirate radio and lo-fi media discussed above, with the consequence that the ‘reese bass’ sounds as a misremembered version of itself shrouded by the intermediary frequencies and the mechanical echoes of the cityscape.[28]

As a result of the often complex and radical transformations of sampled material that take place in Burial’s music, and in electronic music more generally, it becomes difficult to recognise source location within soundworlds in which the majority of samples hold non-causal relationships with their original sounds and can only be deduced by their ‘spectral’ (in music production terminology) and morphological content. However, Burial’s sonic affinities with the hardcore continuum are made explicit in the breakdown of ‘Ghost Hardware’: at 2:23 a speech sample emerges of the DJ Andy C discussing the process of mixing, sourced from the Talkin’ Headz (1998) film documenting the prominent drum ‘n’ bass label Metalheadz. Unlike other examples of vocal engineering discussed above, the voice here is used as a narrative rather than melodic device that speaks directly to the sociocultural dimensions of the hardcore continuum that cannot be made explicit through musical signifiers alone. While heavily processed with band-pass filter and delay, the voice is distinctively human, male, and directly alludes to the activity of mixing that played a crucial role, both musical and social, in the development of musics encompassed by the hardcore continuum: ‘that record, that record, this mix, you know, just all fits together…’. As well expressing the collage aesthetic which characterises Burial’s own methods of production, this voice implies a nostalgia for the golden days of drum ‘n’ bass before the move away from analogue mixing and recording technologies and the emergence of corporate club culture.

B3 // Outro //

The samples which form the basis of Burial’s music clearly hold a special relationship with the music of the hardcore continuum; seasoned Burial listeners are well aware of this. Of course, these relationships are undoubtedly sonic, but they deviate from the conventional techniques and effects of other, more familiar, genres. The sounding relationships between the samples of Burial’s world and the those of the hardcore continuum express many things: a sense of distance and removal from the ‘real’ world; a feeling of loneliness and melancholia inspired by urban life; a malaise at the death of rave. Ultimately, the samples in Burial’s work occupy a sound world haunted by the phantoms and apparitions of UK rave culture and the hardcore continuum writ large. In this sense, they can be thought of as hauntological. However, these ‘sonic hauntologies’ with the hardcore continuum are just one possible conceptual lens through which to discuss samples and their sonic relationships. After all, sample-based electronic music is born from a process of foraging and re-creation in which an aesthetic universe is crafted out of a carefully selected fragments, each holding their own sonic, musical and referential properties, all of which can forge meaningful sonic relationships with the hardcore continuum and beyond.


Edward Campbell-Rowntree is a pianist and writer from the North-East of England. He studied Music at King’s College, London and the University of Oxford and is now training as a concert pianist at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. He has written for the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS), the Oxford Review of Books and the Piano Tuner’s Association, and elsewhere.

* Mark Fisher, ‘Burial: Unedited Transcript’, archived at The Wire (2012): https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/interviews/burial_unedited-transcript.

[1] Georgina Born & Christopher Haworth, ‘From Microsound to Vaporwave: Internet-Mediated Musics, Online Methods, and Genre’, Music & Letters, 98(4), 2017, 601–647. See also Jamie Sexton, ‘Weird Britain in Exile: Ghost Box, Hauntology, and Alternative Heritage’, Popular Music and Society, 35(4), 2012, 561–584, and Owen Hatherley, ‘Lash Out and Cover Up: Austerity Nostalgia and Ironic Authoritarianism in Recession Britain’, Radical Philosophy, 157 (2009), 2-7.

[2] Simon Reynolds, Energy flash: a Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture, (London, Faber & Faber, 2013); Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[3] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1992); Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Communist manifesto, ed. Gareth Stedman Jones, (London: Penguin, 2002).

[4] Description taken from Ghost Box website: https://ghostbox.co.uk

[5] Mark Fisher, ‘Unhomesickness’, k-punk (2005): http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/006414.html.

[6] Mark Fisher, ‘The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology’, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music, Culture, 5(2), 42–55, 2013; Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost futures, (London: Zero Books, 2014); Mark Fisher, ‘What IS Hauntology?’, Film Quarterly, 66(1), 2012, 16–24; Adam Harper (Rouge’s Foam), ‘Hauntology: The Past Inside The Present’: http://rougesfoam.blogspot.com/2009/10/hauntology-past-inside-present.html; Alessio Kolioulis, ‘Borderlands: Dub Techno’s Hauntological Politics of Acoustic Ecology’, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, 7(2), 2015 64–85.

[7] Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, (London: Faber & Faber, 2012).

[8] Adam Harper, ‘Lo-fi Aesthetics in Popular Music Discourse’, D.Phil. Thesis, University of Oxford, 2014.

[9] Katy Shaw, Hauntology: The Presence of the Past in Twenty-first Century English Literature (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); Yuan Yuan, The Riddling between Oedipus and the Sphinx: Ontology, Hauntology, and Heterologies of the Grotesque, (Lanham: University Press of America, 2016).

[10] Jason Stanyek and Benjamin Piekut, ‘Deadness: Technologies of the Intermundane’, TDR/The Drama Review 54.1, 2010: 14-38.

[11] Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 293.

[12] Simon Pitchforth, ‘Burial – Burial’, June 2006: https://www.residentadvisor.net/reviews/3949; Tim Finney, ‘Burial-Burial, June 2006: https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/9138-burial/; A commentator on Sputnik Music went as far to describe the album as ‘claustrophobic, nervous, and at times, scary’, see Iai, ‘Burial- Burial’: https://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/12456/Burial-Burial/.

[13] Sean Michael, ‘Burial ‘unmasked’. Again’, The Guardian, 2008: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/aug/06/burial.myspace.

[14] Simon Reynolds, ‘300: Simon Reynolds on the Hardcore Continuum: Introduction’, The Wire, 2013: https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/the-wire-300_simon-reynolds-on-the-hardcore-continuum_introduction.

[15] Mark Fisher (k-punk) ‘Infinity is Now: In defence of the hardcore continuum’, FACT, 2009: https://www.factmag.com/2009/02/02/infinity-is-now-in-defence-of-the-hardcore-continuum/.

[16] Tobias van Veen, ‘Technics, Precarity and Exodus in Rave Culture’, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture 1(2): 29–30; Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscriptum on the Societies of Control’, October (59), 1992 : 3–7; Jeremy Gilbert, ‘The Hardcore Continuum?’, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, 1(1), 2009: 1-2; Simon Reynolds, ‘The History of Our World: The Hardcore Continuum Debate’ Dancecult, 1(2), 2010: 69–76. Mark Fisher also said this explicitly when he wrote of the ‘slowing of the rate of innovation in popular music, with British dance music, once so furiously inventive, now falling prey to the conditions of entropy which have long prevailed elsewhere.’  See Fisher (k-punk), ’Infinity is Now’.

[17] See Mark Fisher, ‘Burial: Unedited Transcript’.

[18] Boiler Room, ‘Contemporary Classics #003: Burial “Untrue”, with Benji B & Blackdown’, archived at: https://soundcloud.com/platform/contemporary-classics-003-untrue. Timestamp 14:55 s.

[19] A more detailed conceptual framework for understanding how samples operate within EDM has been proposed by Robert Ratcliffe, who argues for ‘a system of classification that takes into account the sonic, musical and referential properties of sampled elements’, as well as the utilisation of electroacoustic terminology in EDM discourse. See Robert Ratcliffe, ‘A Proposed Typology of Sampled Material Within Electronic Dance Music’, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, 6 (1), 2014, 97–122.

[20] The samples discussed in the essay were identified either through personal knowledge, or through the website WhoSampled, a user-generated database of information that documents the source location of samples in over 570,000 tracks. WhoSampled: Exploring the DNA of Music: https://www.whosampled.com.  

[21] For a more detailed exposition of the history of reggae and dub-related music in the UK, see Paul Sullivan, Remixology: Tracing the Dub Diaspora (London: Reaktion Books, 2014).

[22] Blackdown (Martin Clark), ‘soundboy burial’, Blackdown Soundboy Blog: http://blackdownsoundboy.blogspot.com/2006/03/soundboy-burial.html.

[23] See Blackdown (Martin Clark), ‘soundboy burial’.

[24] Jopi Nyman, ‘Sonic Borderscapes: Popular Music, Pirate Radio, and Belonging in Black British Writing in the 1990s’, Anglia, 136 (3), 2019: 468–481.

[25] Adam Harper (Rouge’s Foam) ‘The Premature Burial: Burial the Pallbearer vs Burial the Innovator’: http://rougesfoam.blogspot.com/2009/12/premature-burial-burial-pallbearer-vs.html.

[26] See Boiler Room, ‘Contemporary Classics #003: Burial “Untrue”, Timestap at 12:19s.

[27] An exhaustive list of musical examples to include the ‘reese bassline’ would go far beyond the parameters of this essay. Much like the amen break, its influence throughout British dance music in the 90s and early 2000s was pervasive.

[28] Upon close listening, for example, it is even possible to hear the sound of crickets used from 0:16-0:18s, and at 0:30-0:32s.