T.Williams, Burial & The Living Memory Of Rave ⚡

Words: Son Raw

People have been nostalgic about rave’s “good old days” since about 5 minutes after their first pill wore off, but in 2024, that nostalgic angst has developed a bit more depth. Whether it’s olders fretting zoomer stereotypes of introverted kids staying in, or hard numbers pointing towards 32% of UK clubs closing since Covid, there’s a real sense that various scenes are hurting and clubbers are longing for the past. Of course, that’s not the whole story—ask anyone who went out for a rager last weekend—but perception influences reality, and our current wistfulness for peak raving is seeping into today’s music, an odd turn for a style of music that was once thoroughly focused on the collective potential for a better future.

Quasi-anonymous producer and Hyperdub mainstay Burial has long been considered patient zero for rave nostalgia. In the few interviews he’s put out, he’s stated that much of his formative raving experiences were second hand: borrowing tape-packs and hearing stories from his older brother, imagining what a rave could be, rather than actually attending one. I needn’t tell you what comes next: two classic mid-00s albums, an extended absence to defuse the hype surrounding his work, and a regular series of singles and EPs twisting his formula into different shapes, while dodging the aforementioned album format. Dreamfear/Boy Sent From Above, his latest single and first release for XL Recordings, is his best in a while. Whereas much of the recent Streelands and Antidawn EPs were given over to formless ambient passages distilling Burial’s trademark vinyl crackle and vocal samples down until there was little of interest left, both Dreamfear and Boy Sent From Above are resolutely-rave centric, forming a love letter to the breakbeat hardcore recordings of the artist’s formative years.

It's a canny choice for an XL release, harkening back to the label’s beginnings hawking 12’’ for DJs, long before Adele’s albums gave them carte blanche to follow their whims. That said, no one will confuse either track with functional DJ food: both are multipart suites, seemingly formatted to mimic a dodgy home mixtape grabbing bits from various rave tape-packs. Could this material have been a (long-awaited) third album? Possibly. Here again, however, the nostalgia is the point: Burial’s not even pretending to make a rave tune—he’s trying to convey the rush of rave’s early days as heard by a kid who wasn’t quite old enough to experience it. There’s certainly an argument to be made that the record conveys the excitement and possibility of that moment in time better than going on YouTube to hear a “2 Blind Mice” classic in crystal clear quality—although you should also do that anyways.

If there’s one knock on Burial, it’s that his style has long calcified into meme territory. No matter what fresh twist he applies to his music—Trance! Ambient! Latin freestyle!—Burial cannot help but sound like Burial: forlorn, slightly sad and near spiritual. Nearly two decades since his vinyl debut, even the imitators have moved on, not because the copycats behind “Night Bus” as a subgenre have become more original, but because the formula’s gone stale. Perhaps that’s an uncharitable take: unlike his imitators, Burial only ever sounding like himself might be the most authentic approach he can take. Still, even Aphex Twin—probably his closest peer in terms of reputation—finds ways to surprise us whenever he makes an appearance these days.

This begs the question: is there another way forward for UK rave music as it hits middle age? If there is, you might find it on T.Williams’ Raves Of Future Past, a very different deconstruction of the Ur-genre growing out of jungle, garage, grime, dubstep and funky house. Williams himself has plenty of history as a DJ and producer, both in grime as part of Black Ops under the name Dread D, and in more mainstream house under his principal alias. Raves Of Future Past, however, has no time for such divisions between genres: it’s undoubtedly UK-centric and focused on clubbing’s most nocturnal and subterranean elements, but the record is also happy to throw various eras’ innovations into the stew to see what comes of it. If you’re a DJ, there’s undoubtedly a track for your next set here, no matter the tempo or genre, but taken as a whole, it’s a love letter to the past 30 years of UK dance music and a strong argument that it all belongs under the same banner. In short, it’s not the tempo or era that matters, it’s the gestures that persevere through each—the breaks, the bass, the dancehall vocal snippets—that make this music what it is.

It also emphatically centres UK rave music as Black music, whether flipping Burning Spear’s Windrush era anthem into militant jungle or reminding us that funky house had as much Jamaica and Trinidad in its DNA as it did Chicago. That’s a crucial point in 2024, an era where vocalists would often prefer to brand themselves as rappers rather than emcees, and the export of UK rave’s signifiers—reloads and the like—are often picked up internationally by well-meaning DJs who aren’t always familiar with their histories and cultural contexts. Above all, though, the record is fun! It’s a rush to hear garage collide with grime or trying to figure out if a tune is closer to Black Ops’ sublow or post-DMZ dubstep. Props go to label Purple City as well: the cover art is gorgeous and fits the X-Men pun of an album title to a T… no pun intended.

That X-Men connection is a fun one to explore, particularly given that the best current comics under that wing are from UK writers like Kieron Gillen and Al Ewing. But whereas rave music once promised us a better future—or, at least, a great night out—X-Men’s alternate futures (and there are many) are often apocalyptic, and plenty of the comic’s dark visions of authoritarianism have come true, from military robots to continued and increasing xenophobia. Nevertheless, just as the mutants will fight on and inevitably come back from the dead, UK rave music will keep mutating and “reviving”.

Chances are you’ll have a hard time keeping track of whether we’re in a jungle revival (PinkPantheress, Nia Archives), garage comeback (Interplanetary Criminal, Sammy Virji), dubstep resurrection (Hamdi, Sicaria) or Grime 3.0 (Travs Presents, Flowdan winning a flippin’ Grammy!). If there’s one thing to take away from Raves Of Future Past, it’s that the overlap should make perfect sense, because it’s all the same culture.

Posted on April 04, 2024