A Quietus Review: Watching Dead Empires In Decay by The Stranger (October 31st, 2013)

It’s often tempting to view the many different projects guided by James Kirby as different facets of the man’s personality. V/Vm was Kirby the prankster with a wry grin, gleefully distorting the contours of ubiquitous pop songs. As The Caretaker the Stockport-born artist delves into the cobwebbed basement of memory, both his own and that of others, mournfully lamenting in its fragility and ultimate loss. As Leyland Kirby he is often at his most emotionally raw, examining, dissecting even, his feelings in the company of his listeners, which makes the experience of albums like Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was and Eager To Tear Apart The Stars both exquisite and somewhat painful. Of all his diverse incarnations, The Stranger remains the most obscure and unfathomable. It’s also the darkest visage Kirby cares to share with the world.

2008’s Bleaklow was rooted in landscape, exploring the northern English moors near where Kirby grew up, and seemed to share an affinity with the dark ambient of Lustmord, Lull, Hoedh et al. Watching Dead Empires In Decay is much more layered and unpredictable in scope. Perhaps Kirby’s environment – he was living in Berlin for a number of years – has rubbed off on him. His work as The Caretaker and under his own name possesses a certain British quirkiness, leading comparisons to be drawn with acts like Demdike Stare and the Ghost Box stable.

This version of The Stranger is less anchored in time and place, but echoes of Berlin’s electronic scene seem to find a resonance in the dense layers of sound that unfurl on Watching Dead Empires In Decay. It’s often just a shuffling beat, quickly swallowed by walls of texture, or a wobbly electronic structure that suggests a whiff of the dancefloor before dissolving, but it’s there, like a ghost fighting against everything else Kirby deploys. These casual insinuations are at times almost imperceptible, but they succeed in destabilising the entire album. It’s not the memory music of his other releases, but it does operate in a world where the fabric of reality is crumbling and frayed, a good reflection of the greying album art (which is superb). In short, Watching Dead Empires In Decay is a wonderful enigma of an album.

From the off the album feels windswept and shadowy, with opening track ‘We Are Enemies But Not Here’ starting with palpable menace, with grumpy-sounding industrial creaks and crashes buffeted by swirling white noise. From there, Kirby evolves the record gradually, dropping in a muted rhythmic pulsation on ‘So Pale It Shone In The Night’, like the sound of tram wheels rolling through a deserted city centre at night, with chimes ringing out forlornly in the background.

The Stranger’s music feels both artificial and earthy, like a combination of electronic devices and snippets of found sounds. ‘Spiral of Decline’ could be the spine of a Raime or Regis track, reduced to the bare bones of beats and creaking electronics, although, again, the exact nature of what is being used is hazy. ‘Where Are Our Monsters Now, Where Are Our Friends?’ is the most enigmatic track on the album, with a backbeat that could have been found on an old synth-pop or trip-hop track filtered through a gossamer curtain of decay and fuzz. If Watching Dead Empires In Decay is an image of Kirby’s world, then it’s a purposefully elusive and nocturnal one, the soundtrack of a man who never sleeps, which, given his output, I’m not sure James Kirby does. Where so much dark electronic music feels cold and impassive, The Stranger’s contains a heart of real warmth and humanity, more sorrow than robotic angst.

This emotional core keeps the album from ever disappearing into the arsehole of formulaic electronica. The Stranger’s identity, as a musical concept, is as vague as the output Kirby weaves. The Stranger could be a ghost, or a Third Man-like figure of mystery and darkness. Maybe he’s intended to be some sort of fusion of man and machine, one of Gary Numan’s replicas. But with Kirby at the helm, the project becomes so much more than a sum of musical parts and obtuse intrigue, crystallising into a very real expression of humanity, albeit one that is blurred and confused. I’m not sure if it was intended or not, but on Watching Dead Empires In Decay, James Kirby succeeds in reminding us of who he is, stranger or not.

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A Quietus Review: Eager to Tear Apart the Stars by Leyland James Kirby (October 21st, 2011)

leyland_kirby_1319142286_crop_180x180Without wanting to delve too deep into the realms of emotion, there seems to be a place that most, if not all, people can go to – in their heads, naturally – where the confluence of memory and imagination isolates them in a strange mixture of safety and loneliness. A sort of internal realm of melancholia and wistfulness, if you will.

For me, it’s the top floor of some unidentified tower, looking out over an anonymous city in the dead of night. Generally this is London: as everything closes early here, you can quickly find yourself staring at empty offices, pubs, museums, churches and theatres illuminated by unnecessary lights long after most people have deserted the streets in favour of cosy living rooms or windowless clubs. And this mental space (which is only tangentially linked to actual physical locations) is somewhere my mind instantly flits to in response to certain music. I assume that for others this space could perhaps be a tidy suburban street, or a dusty country lane, or an isolated mountain lake. You only have to watch the films of Wong Kar-Wai, Walter Salles, Sofia Coppola, Francois Ozon or Hou Hsiao-Hsien, which often feature prominent soundtracks, to know that the beautiful weight of melancholia – perhaps the most inchoate of emotions, linked to grief, memory, wistfulness, sadness, joy and other more tangible emotions – is almost essential in the expression of humanity on a purely emotional level.

Leyland Kirby is someone who has tapped into that place where melancholia is all-enveloping and overwhelming, channeled it, and delivered it unto his audience with an almost bloody-minded determination to not flinch in the face of such palpable emotion. His phenomenal work as The Caretaker is an emotionally charged exploration of the disintegration of memory, using scratched vinyl as a representation of the blurred lines in the reminiscences of Alzheimer’s sufferers, and indeed of anyone clutching at the dissolving straws of incoherent thought. But under the Leyland Kirby moniker, he thrusts aside the context to focus on heartbreaking melodies, and the unadulterated, troubling effect they can have on the psyche. As I wrote in a review of Ezekiel Honig’s Folding In On Itself, beauty can be as damaging as it is rapturous, and Leyland Kirby has made the bold decision to hone in on this uneasy, yet gorgeous, balance.

In lesser hands, such a deliberately overwrought approach would (and has) quickly become maudlin. ‘This Is The Story Of Paradise Lost’ tugs remorselessly at the heart-strings, drifting as it does on a sea of piano notes that would have gladly been seized upon by Mahler or Satie. But the track, a nine-minute funereal masterpiece, follows hot on the heels of the discordant opener ‘The Arrow of Time;, which sets a tone that goes beyond sadness and into the sinister and introspective environs of dark ambient. Yet even if ‘This Is The Story Of Paradise Lost’ juxtaposes its mournful piano with rumbling electronic effects, a dusty crackle and hazy synth patterns. Kirby refuses to play the sadness game, bringing a tension and abstraction to the piece that manages to make it sound both ancient, in the manner of The Caretaker’s experiments, but perhaps also a deeper, more spiritual sense, similar to the music of ritual; and furiously palpable. Like a twisted memory flailing its way to the forefront of one’s consciousness, whether we want it to or not…

Throughout Eager To Tear Apart The Stars, Kirby toys with the preconceptions of ambient music and throws up musical ideas that manage to sound both familiar and emotionally unexpected. ‘No Longer Distance Than Death’ is a subdued rumble not unlike the darker moments of Eno’s On Land album, or the creaking horror music of Xela and Svarte Greiner, as nocturnal synths fill all the space of the mix, almost industrial in their sinister omnipresence.

The album concludes with two ten-minute epics that are so emotionally charged it can be draining. ‘They Are All Dead, There Are No Skip At All’, by its very title, feels defeated, as laden sub-techno beats battle with a synthetic miasma locked somewhere between the Blade Runner soundtrack and Music for Airports. Repeated phrases lose all coherence under sonic mulch, yet all through a tinkle of bells tries to elevate the darkly cosmic soup into something transcendent. On ‘My Dream Contained A Star’, Kirby does just that. The grubby synths fall away, to be replaced by an elegiac piano dueting with sampled violins. It’s a sparsely beautiful end to what may just be the best album of the year thus far.

Like his fellow Briton Philip Jeck, Kirby refuses to let the intellectual considerations inherent in his music (and there are many, notably the fact that ‘Leyland’ is actually his grandfather’s name, once again bringing up considerations of memory and identity) intrude on the emotional power of his work. For me, Eager to Tear Apart the Stars immediately evokes that place, that tired balcony supporting yet another destitute soul as it stares out over tired, darkened streets, drowning in that intoxicating melancholia. It’s the music of inchoate beauty and lost love. Of troubled emotions and fragile thoughts.

You can also read this article here: http://thequietus.com/articles/07227-leyland-kirby-eager-to-tear-apart-the-stars-review