Leyland Kirby - Sadly, the future is no longer what it was [History always favours the winners - 2009]The common use of the idea of hauntology in music of recent years, while mainly serving to confuse its definition, does at least point to a general running out of fresh musical ideas (and ways to describe them), an ennui replacing optimistic expectation, a disappointed wistfulness for the new that never arrives. And, ‘Sadly, the future is no longer what it was’ serves as a highly suitable soundtrack as well as a succinct title for such a decline.
Leyland Kirby developed a way of distressing audio through his anarchic, copyright-infringing V/VM project of the 90s that saw chart hits (like Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’) sampled in their entirety and then manipulated into something that sounded just plain wrong and unstable, retaining its essence but subverting its bland happiness into a woozy state closer to a psychological breakdown. But it was throughout the following decade that saw the ‘h’ word in his every review. This was when Kirby, under the guise of The Caretaker, took his toolkit and applied it to old 78s from the thirties and forties. The results were surprising - gone was the dark hilarity of vandalised pop shallowness, and instead was a truly haunting experience that mingled a deep eeriness with our inherited understanding of the nature of memories and nostalgia.
A similar feel is attached to this latest work released under his own name that sees Kirby generating the source material himself. But this time it’s not just memories but also a deep sadness and loneliness that permeate every second of this three disc set’s four hours. Around half of the twenty tracks use a piano as the lead instrument playing simple but rather slow harmonic progressions. It is very reminiscent of William Basinski’s ‘Disintegration Tapes’ at times, but whereas Basinski’s was born of the sound of a real corrosion (of the tapes themselves), Kirby’s is a hand-crafted drowning: lurking underneath all tracks is a strong, sluggishly shifting sediment of sub-bass reverberations that weigh heavily on the melody and often compete for prominence (and occasionally succeed). The effect is like exhibiting watercolour paintings in the rain - the semi-familiar refrains are increasingly soaked in a dark reverb and struggle to attain anything close to a richly crisp and dry passage bringing it closer to some of Philip Jeck’s similarly distressed work.
The melodies themselves range from piano lesson exercises in romantic chords (as on the set’s opener) through the sort of hymns played on a stand-up piano at the beginning of primary school assemblies to the kind of light jazz that informed Angelo Badalamenti’s theme to Twin Peaks. Amidst the dinner jazz tinkering is placed strong, hallucinatory accompaniments on cheap synthesisers that would make any snoozing diner regret their over-indulgence at the cheese board, disturbing as well as inducing their hypnagogic state (yes, more of those ‘h’ words!). But, partly due to their length (usually between seven and twenty minutes a piece) and partly due to their slow and highly-repetitive cycles, the piano-centric tracks are the most plainly articulated of Kirby’s sodden and solemn soliloquies. When the piano is dispensed with all together, the 80s synths lead the way from the woeful into more wayward passages, like on the title track whose overdriven modulations manage to recall both Coil’s moon music (particularly the soaring pads of ‘Are You Shivering?’) and Vangelis’ film soundtracks across its revolving entropic processes. Similarly, the angsty-titled ‘A longing to be absorbed for a while into a different and beautiful world’ contrasts heavily with its gentle predecessor by pouring a thick river of squirming SF synths and low end rumbling as a distant theremin sorrowfully sings.
Taken as a whole, the work is extraordinary in its intent and focus on such a limited emotional range of memories and melancholia. However, due to its length it would be unusual, if not unhealthy, to travel its length and breadth in one sitting. Indeed, it was also released on vinyl as three double albums and, true to its hauntological conceits, is probably the best format to listen to, in single-sided doses, where the cyclic surface noise will certainly complement Kirby’s concentric keys as they sink to the rumbling depths, most neatly summed up by the title of the set’s second piece – ‘The Sound of Music Vanishing’.Russell Cuzner