There is one pressing thought that every fan of Burial will have during their first listen of Rival Dealer: this is not the same producer who released the canonical Untrue LP almost seven years ago. Over the course of that time, the staunchly (almost absurdly) elusive artist has been slowly chipping away at his seemingly perfect style of downcast dubstep, attempting to excavate the essence of that music and apply it to another direction. The results have been scattered, with tunes like "Ashtray Wasp" from 2012's Kindred EP and the b-side of "Truant" b/w "Rough Sleeper" making for the best examples of Burial's attempt at producing episodic, longform tracks, and others proving to be too convoluted to resonate like his shorter pieces. With the Rival Dealer EP, his only release of 2013, Burial seems to have finally reached the core of what made Untrue so phenomenal, and has built around it three new tracks which are largely unlike anything he's made before, even though they thrive on the same lifeblood as his most beloved music.
The title track opens Rival Dealer with a salvo of heavy bass, ominous synth leads, and punishing breakbeats, and that visceral retread of classic rave gives the effect of Burial purging himself of what could be considered his "old" sound. Throughout the first half of "Rival Dealer," thunderclaps and squalls of white noise threaten to overtake its gnarled drum & bass-isms as samples declaring "This is who I am" and "You know my motherfucking style!" color the music with disembodied personality. The experience suggests having to endure the storm of a tumultuous self-discovery, leaving behind a dark past (musically, personally, or otherwise) and forging onward into a new mindset of hope and acceptance. Once the music makes its drastic turn around the seven-and-a-half-minute mark—dropping off into an anti-gravity chamber of atmospheric shimmer and airy flute flourishes—Burial never looks back, and forges a captivating new style for himself that is utterly daring, especially in the context of an artist who built his name on such a specific and identifiable sound.
It may be somewhat simplistic to lump "Hiders" and "Come Down to Us" into the category of Burial's "new" sound (and, of course, we have yet to find out if he will even continue down this path), but there's no question that the producer has tapped into new resources to write these two songs. The music glows with fresh invigoration, sounding as if it's lit up by the same mystical skyline that gave M83's Before the Dawn Heals Us its widescreen splendor. Across the 20 minutes or so that Burial explores the possibilities of this style, he uses bright, digital synth tones, uplifting melodies, gated-reverb drums, and emotionally evocative vocal samples that offer reassurances like "You are not alone" and "Don't be afraid," in addition to his usual gritty textures and newfound love of phantasmagoria. Hearing these sounds unfold, it quickly becomes apparent that Rival Dealer isn't even remotely concerned with Untrue's shadowy post-dubstep and rain-slick desolation (the EP's closest relative from that album would be the beatless, incandescent "In McDonalds"), but the music's sense of injured tenderness and introspection is as heavy as ever.
More so than any of his other releases, Burial seems to have something to say throughout Rival Dealer, and that message helps tie together the record's diverse 28 minutes and give its three tracks the impact of a full-length album. The typically reserved artist even went so far as to share his motives behind this new release via a text message to BBC Radio host Mary Anne Hobbs, saying, "I wanted the tunes to be anti-bullying tunes that could maybe help someone to believe in themselves, to not be afraid, and to not give up, and to know that someone out there cares and is looking out for them." Burial's uncharacteristic sentiment resonates greatly within Rival Dealer, his positive reinforcements culminating as "Come Down to Us" approaches its end with triumphant chords, rollicking drumline beats, and voices proclaiming "You are a star. There's no one like you." It's the EP's biggest, brightest moment and the perfect send off for an emotionally (and musically) complex record, but the track doesn't stop there. After a moment of silence, a high-pitched voice tells us about overcoming the fears of being transgender, learning to accept and love yourself for you are, and using that self-realization to discover "worlds previously unimaginable." It's the perfect distillation of Burial's message in Rival Dealer, but it could also be an ideal metaphor for the artist himself, a man who through transformation accessed a realm outside of himself to create one of the most affecting records of his career.