The album may not be dead, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the career arc of William Bevan, the reclusive London producer better known as Burial. In the six years since 2007's Untrue, he's eschewed the LP format entirely, opting instead for a series of maxi-singles both as a solo artist and in collaboration with the likes of Four Tet, Thom Yorke, and Massive Attack. It's a shift that's been mirrored by Bevan's gradual loosening and deepening of his style, which once seemed wedded to a rigid formula: sandblasted vocal samples, delicate layers of ghostly ambience, and click-clacking 2-step rhythms full of glitchy hi-hats and syncopated rimshots. Traces of that sound can still be heard on his latest solo effort, but the spectacular Rival Dealer is an evolutionary leap forward for the Burial project, expertly crafted but instantly accessible, powerful and emotive but never cheaply sentimental.
Like its predecessors, Rival Dealer packs a lot of music into what is nominally a three-song EP; the title track is an 11-minute epic in three distinct movements, beginning with a galvanizing drum n' bass section that's as club-oriented and uptempo as anything Bevan's ever done. It's chased by a static-coated, rough-and-tumble midsection that sounds like an outtake from Four Tet's U.K.-hardcore homage Beautiful Rewind, before a serene ambient outro rides a cresting wave of piano tones, woodwind flurries, and sub-bass growls to an abrupt, unsettling halt. Any one of these segments would, on their own, signal a new direction for Bevan, but in quick succession they're signs of an artist determined to not merely break, but shatter his own mold—as one of the EP's many sampled voices suggests on closer "Come Down to Us," "to step into the unknown."
Those voices are a constant presence on Rival Dealer, some garbled and others perfectly clear, some soothing and others pained and afraid. Bevan's knack for wringing forceful emotion out of scant, intermittently intelligible vocals has never been in better form than on "Hiders," a starry-eyed ballad that ends in full pop mode, a clipped voice crooning over a motorik beat: "You don't have to be alone." Some have already speculated what it means that the EP opens with a sample from Gavin DeGraw's "More Than Anyone," pitch-shifted so that his voice sounds female, and ends with an excerpt of a speech by transgender filmmaker and activist Lana Wachowski; in a rare public statement, Bevan recently spoke of his intention to make an "anti-bullying" record. But the obstacles faced and overcome on Rival Dealer are universal—self-doubt, alienation, loss, heartbreak—and its belief in the redemptive power of music as a light against darkness is contagious. Wintry sonic atmospheres, a motley chorus of voices, and a life-affirming message of salvation—intentionally or not, Burial might have just released the best Christmas album of the year.