In my review of Jonsi & Alex’s Riceboy Sleeps project, I note:
This is definitely not Post Rock or whatever Sigur Ros’s music is called. It’s far closer to the experimental work of someone like William Basinski or Jim Haynes (whose work Sever touches on similar decaying themes) or Peter Wright or The Caretaker or any one of a number of musicians experimenting with rendering into musical form the very real concepts of death and decay. Riceboy Sleeps is prettier than those works, but it’s also not as complete a work of art as something as monumental as The Disintegration Loops. Then again, Jonsi & Alex are rock musicians first, experimental artists second; by contrast, someone like The Caretaker has spent a decade imagining and perfecting his own world of memory and decay. [emphasis mine]
By comparing Jonsi & Alex to The Caretaker (among others), I wanted to draw a distinction between two different types of experimental artists. Jonsi & Alex (and Sigur Ros) create music that is unusual and even a bit weird–but still popular in the sense that it is created with an audience (and with pleasure) in mind. Riceboy Sleeps, although more experimental and difficult than Takk…, still falls into this “palatable” terrain. By contrast, The Caretaker’s work (especially the later stuff like Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia) doesn’t bother with popular conventions at all. There are no clear melodies, no discernible beats, no direct hooks to engage the listener. It’s a journey of mammoth proportions, requiring hours of listening to pick through the intricate layers of meaning in each fragment of sound. It’s a wonderful, emotionally drenching journey, but listeners are expected to find the trail for themselves.
All of this is to say that the first work under The Caretaker’s own name (more or less) is everything a Caretaker fan would expect–but also a significant enough of a departure to warrant the new moniker. It’s long (almost four hours, spread over three CDs and twenty tracks), it’s intense, it’s maddening, and it’s exhausting. It challenges listeners from the first moment and never lets up, never gives in to any semblance of conformity or audience expectation. In short, it’s fantastic.
But it’s also surprisingly sparse. The use of sampled or retouched material is absent here. In its place is Kirby’s own piano work, which is twisted and mutated in ways similar to the ways old 78s were twisted and mutated on The Haunted Ballroom. In the Caretaker work, there was always the hint of a ghost drifting through the soundscape (much like the ghosts that inhabit the hotel in The Shining, Kirby’s inspiration for The Caretaker). The voices of long-dead singers warbled and floated through static and distortion. It was, in many ways, the musical equivalent of a seance. While the approach is similar here (music processed and treated to render it more opaque), the ghosts are gone. There are no vocals or orchestra–just a lone piano accompanied by occasional synthesizer tones and stray, warbling distortion.
For this reason, it’s far sadder, far more melancholy than earlier works by this artist. I figured this out after the first or second listen. However, for the life of me, the more I listened to the work, the less I understood WHY this was a sadder, more melancholy album than the Caretaker stuff. I actually listened to this work non-stop (or thereabouts) for over a week, trying to place this music, trying to wrap my head and ears around it. However, it wasn’t until I read a review in the November 2009 of The Wire (by Joseph Stannard) that I finally understood why this work was so unique:
Whereas his work as The Caretaker acknowledges the possibility of magic–the source material deriving from songs which view love as capable of transcending even death–this new music confronts the listener with a sadness that cannot be escaped by earthly or supernatural means. With its stately piano, ice-sheet synth and billowing clouds of all-enveloping Noise, History* offers nothing less than a complete immersion in grief, stubbornly denying the listener the comfort of catharsis. Beautiful, but not for the light-hearted.
Whereas The Caretaker’s work hinted at ghosts, at the possibility of connecting with a “beyond,” Leyland Kirby’s work focuses on the absence of such ghosts, the absence of any meaningful link to another world or another realm. At least, that’s what I think he’s saying here. And he’s right. There’s a distinct lack of comfort in this work, and while I wouldn’t exactly characterize the music as an “immersion in grief,” I would say that the music seems to exist in a world that is quite different from our own, a world that is uniquely alien to our everyday experience.
Or, to put it another way, if the “haunted ballroom” scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was the inspiration for The Caretaker, then I wouldn’t be surprised if the shots of the vast living ocean in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris was the inspiration for Sadly… Like that ocean, this music seems to be both alive and beyond our understanding. Like the ocean, the music here connects with its audience in ways that raise more questions than it answers. There’s also a musical link between the works; there’s a hint of Edward Artemiev’s electronic score floating through many of the pieces in Sadly, filling in the otherworldly soundscape the way the ocean fills the minds and hearts of the characters in Tarkovsky’s epic.
In the end, though, this is a very personal album that, no doubt, elicits very personal, subjective responses from its listeners. For me, this is a monumental work, the finest music to come out this year. I don’t know what you will hear, so I encourage you to find out for yourself. There are samples available at Kirby’s website, History Always Favours the Winners, where there are also links for places to buy the album.
* The Wire apparently reviewed the album under the title Kirby uses for his website. Perhaps the work was renamed between the writing of the review and the CD release in October 2009. Who knows and who cares? It’s the same work either way.