Adam Curtis is a film-maker who has made his name by assembling disparate, incongruous, often dissonant, images, sounds and stories into palettes and pieces that lay claim to hidden realities and subterranean narratives that may or may not lie beneath the post-war, neo-liberal consensus. When his films are at their best, they bring together wildly divergent elements to illustrate the completely unexpected, in ways which may not otherwise have been directly approachable.
The use of music – surprising, cinematic, evocative, contrapuntal – has always been central to his work. He uses it to open up emotions, to manipulate mood and, in combination with often dizzying, disorienting film footage, to suggest what seem to be entirely new ways of seeing, hearing and interpreting the world.
And so, when he speaks haltingly, gushingly of an artist like Burial, as he did (see below) to Adam Buxton last year, it’s clear that he feels he has found a common spirit.
“I think Burial is the genius of our time… The most important Burial song to listen to, which will tell you everything about him, is Come Down to Us… Why it’s so incredible, because what Burial does is he takes what is essentially industrial noise – and songs – but fuses them together to create something that is epic and romantic, and sort of gives you a clue of the sort of thing that might be coming, culturally – which is a higher system, I think. And I think he’s there ahead of everyone. It’s so emotional; yet, at the same time, just noise. And, I don’t know, it’s just, I can’t – sorry, this is me being inarticulate – it’s just… wonderful… It takes you into another world.”
‘Come Down To Us’ is the third and final track of the ‘Rival Dealer’ EP. By the point of its release, Burial’s approach had shifted radically from his beginnings in rainswept garage and two-step, but which retained throughout a constant, imposing sense of the cinematic possibilities of urban existence, For Curtis to describe the music as ‘just noise’ is misleading. The EP’s 28 minutes bristles and sways with ambient atmospherics, underscored by vinyl crackles, metallic weapon clicks and the sub-sonic alien buzz of concrete. But the two counterpoints of the set, the 10 minute title track and the 13-minute ‘Come Down To Us’ are compelling pieces of music, first and foremost, not noise. ‘Rival Dealer’ bustles and sprints, stumbles and surges, a flurrying beat pulling the track through what feels like a hurried escape. ‘Come Down To Us’ is entirely different, a mesmeric, devotional head-nod, underscored by a heartbreakingly delicate melody and skated over by a yearning vocal. It’s intoxicating and incredibly affecting. The entire EP is spun through with spoken snatches dealing with identity and the closing sampled speech from transgender filmmaker Lana Wachowski throws everything that has preceded it into a breathtaking new light.
“It’s just… wonderful… It takes you to another world.” And put together with the EPs that have followed in the 4 years since Rival Dealer, it really does seem as if Burial may have found a new way forward, and got there ahead of everyone.
On only one occasion as a young man did I sit down with my friends and try to make music. Only one of us could play, and he the guitar, but the rest of us had a go. I found myself noodling around on a keyboard finding simple melody lines to decorate a steady snare beat and repetitive, wannabe hypnotic, chords. It was no good, but we had an enjoyable afternoon. That’s probably the story of 95% of all bands, those that come together in the minds and back bedrooms of their so-briefly aligned members. The other 5% go on, and turn what rough clay they find in their hands into something more permanent. Probably 4% of those are awful too, but at least they’re trying, which really, genuinely is something.
Fuck Buttons are not like our band. They are, to my mind, a perfect creation, using complex palimpsests of sound to create music that is unnaturally direct and powerful. My mayflower-like musical efforts categorically were not perfect. However they come back to mind now for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because I think that had we had the spirit, talent, energy or time to go on, then this is the kind of music we may have felt we were trying to make, had we the imaginative capacity, which we almost certainly didn’t. Nonetheless, our approach had the basic germ. We started with one thing, a chord sequence, and then added to it gradually, a rhythm, a synthesizer, some words. Over the course of 20 minutes we built towards something.
Secondly, and crucially, I think about that afternoon because when I listen to Fuck Buttons, which I often do, I am always struck by how simple the proposition sounds – just start with one thing and then add more on top until you have something bigger, and bigger, and bigger – and just how startlingly difficult it must actually be to pull that trick off.
All three Fuck Buttons records have taken a similar approach, each using different sets of building blocks and achieving different ultimate outcomes. ‘Street Horrrsing’, still one of the more physically unbalancing records I own, built out from twinkling keyboards, human screams and the sound of an exterminating alien spacecraft to produce a soundscape for a post-human planet. ‘Tarot Sport’ dragged the sound through the doors of a warehouse party, creating hypnotic and crushing beats. ‘Slow Focus’ seems to me the richest, most satisfying record of the three. Each track starts with a simple element, a pounding piece of percussion or a choppy synth line, and adds more, steadily getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Each time a new element joins the picture it sounds to have become impossibly huge, and only after a few minutes more have passed do you realise just how much more massive the whole machine has grown since then.
Let’s pause to acknowledge the name and cover art of this record, both helpful encapsulations of what the band do so exquisitely. ‘Slow Focus’, a sense of pulling out from, or in towards, an object, steadily to reveal an encapsulating super-structure, or zooming to uncover layers beneath layers beneath layers. And that adorning piece of jewellery that stares out from the sleeve: It starts with an apparently huge stone at its centre, which should have been enough by any measure, but its creator then added a setting, and then some decoration and then crenellations and some filigree until ultimately the whole piece is five times the size and weight it ever needed to be. And yet, somehow, where it should be gaudy and overloaded, it feels rich.
Throughout this album, Fuck Buttons consistently create a sense of ecstatic intensity, which is as beguiling as it is overwhelming, never repetitive, always physically consuming. It’s quite a trick.