Home Music Rediscover: The Caretaker: Everywhere at the End of Time

Rediscover: The Caretaker: Everywhere at the End of Time

Songs build little rooms in time/ And housed within the song’s design/ Is the ghost the host has left behind/ To greet and sweep the guest inside,” the late David Berman once sang. Music, it turns out, is more than the notes and lyrics – if we’re lucky, the songs and pieces that we love get scratched into our souls, capable of sticking with us long enough that they become gateways to our own pasts. But those etchings will inevitably corrode and decay, a fire spread further by random and unforgiving disease. It’s all just a burning memory.

This is a reality that Everywhere at the End of Time, a six-album cycle by the intensely prolific Mancunian electronic producer Leyland Kirby, ushers us into. The concept seems simple: Kirby would make loops out of pre-war ballroom jazz 78s and wax cylinders, and then manipulate them – gently at first, with pieces removed, and the remnants becoming progressively more distorted. With each passing “stage,” the anodyne melodies we’d grow fond of would become corrupted and debauched, their sounds stratified until their sources are completely unrecognizable. In doing so, the music would mirror the way the mind, once able to easily process and recall memories (like those of the songs presented here), can fail us and turn even our most cherished experiences into an unrecognizable hellscape.

Before we can properly examine Everywhere, it helps to discuss the entirety of Kirby’s career as The Caretaker. The project began more than 20 years ago with his “Haunted Ballroom Trilogy,” in which he replicated the music of ghosts with warped and manipulated pre-war ballroom jazz recordings. In this aesthetic mission, he succeeded more impressively than anyone could imagine. Selected Memories from the Haunted Ballroom and its sequels contain terrifying and beautiful glimpses into the rooms housed within those songs, deteriorating rapidly as the world forgets their existence.

Before long, Kirby departed the ballroom to create within the field of memory and recall, including the three-and-a-half hour Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia (2006), designed to aurally simulate the mind’s inability to form new, concrete memories. The fusion of the two previous eras of his work culminated in his breakthrough: 2011’s An empty bliss beyond this world. Here, he explored the connection between memory and music, a reflection of studies that have shown that music helps people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s to remember their long-corrupted pasts. He used those old samples to build warm and comforting loops, though under close inspection, the listener is able to find that gaps exist, with melodic phrases that repeat endlessly without any resolution, replete with crackles and hisses that echo like footsteps in an endless hallway. Just like everything under the Caretaker moniker, An Empty Bliss is fully immersive, and it’s worth hearing An Empty Bliss in headphones to get the full effect of every repetition and pop. An essay just as long as this one could be written about these spaces, each of them a snapshot that depicts both visible wonder and hidden terror, lingering just outside your field of vision.

After several detours, including the soundtrack to Grant Gee’s W.G. Sebald documentary Patience (After Sebald), Kirby returned to the damned ballroom one final time to say goodbye to the Caretaker as a moniker entirely with Everywhere at the End of Time. The first stage of Everywhere isn’t too far removed from that of An Empty Bliss, though it feels more like a prelude than a sequel. This is but the beginning – as Kirby explained in his description of Stage 1, “This stage is most like a beautiful daydream. The glory of old age and recollection. The last of the great days.” British Jazz singer Al Bowlly’s “Heartaches” floods our ears, a bouncy number to pull us in. Take care to familiarize yourself with the sound of “Heartaches” as you listen to opener “It’s Just a Burning Memory,” as it will operate as a throughline as we traverse the stages. Stage 1 exists in just one mindset: lightness. These memories are still crisp, so the melodies are recalled easily. The crackle and hiss of the vinyl is never overbearing, and any details that have been surgically removed are difficult to find. The song titles of Stage 1 help ease us into a sense of comfort: “Childishly Fresh Eyes,” “Late Afternoon Drifting,” “The Loves of My Entire Life.” The song titles – as well as the remarkable art created for each stage by Kirby’s longtime artistic collaborator Ivan Seal – are integral to the story contained here. If we didn’t know what was coming, Stage 1 could really be a beautiful daydream.

But, as the opening track of Stage 2 reminds us, “A Losing Battle is Raging.” The song is full of splendor and drone, somewhere in the same rainbow vein as the best of Boards of Canada’s work. The sound of this song envelops you, but instead of conveying gentleness, we’re cloaked in heavy sorrow. Something is going wrong, but denial takes hold. Melodies and phrases are allowed to play out for longer, but the damage becomes more visible. And where all of the music in Stage 1 felt light and airy, Stage 2 exists in twilight, in a space where sadness and defeat can be entertained. Watch as “Surrendering to Despair” warps, and how “What Does it Matter How My Heart Breaks” presents the “Heartaches” melody to us, but plagued with lethargy. On “Glimpses of Hope in Trying Times,” a building dread looms large and unavoidable. Again, these song titles paint the world: “Last Moment of Pure Recall” is followed by “Denial Unravelling,” the pair letting us know that the subject has lost the ability to pretend things aren’t wrong. We, as listeners, know what’s happening, but we’re powerless to stop it.

With Stage 3, any illusion of a return to form is gone. The boisterous memories of Stage 1 return, but they sound like they’ve taken on water, their elements seemingly emerging from the inky blackness as easily as they recede. Each memory, previously allowed to graciously fade out, now ends abruptly, colliding with the ones that follow. These are, as Kirby explains, “the last embers of awareness before we enter the post awareness stages.” This stage ties us back to An Empty Bliss – not only will songs like “Libet’s Delay” and “An Empty Bliss Beyond This World” return, but elements from those songs return as well – the subject, desperate to hold on tightly, brings them all back, but now that we’ve grown accustomed to them, the damage is impossible to ignore. “And Heart Breaks” treats us to the last view of Bowlly’s “Heartaches,” these elements now collapsing, its jaunty horns now closer to radio static. The names here become more abstract – “To the Minimal Great Hidden” is a title full of foreboding, as are “Hidden Sea Buried Deep” and “Burning Despair Does Ache.” We still have a long way to go.

It’s easy to argue that the first three stages does little to expand The Caretaker’s bag of tricks. Even at the most decayed, he cleaves pretty close to what he achieved on An empty bliss. These first spaces are essential to the journey, though, and it seems he took great care in making them as easily-digested as possible. Time spent within the first three stages moves so fast. Almost too fast. And without those stages and their comforts, the transition into Stage 4 wouldn’t have the crushing impact it does. Here, we begin the “post-awareness” section, where the subject has ceased to fully realize the problem exists – as terrifying in concept as it is in practice. With Stage 4, everything changes: the one-to-four-minute songs are now 20+ apiece, and three of the four are simply titled “Stage 4 Post-Awareness Confusions.” Melodies still “exist,” but too loosely to even truly call them melodies – they emerge through the sound of an AM radio permanently stuck between stations, almost taunting us from the uncaring void of sound and chaos. Midway through the second “Post-Awareness Confusion,” we hear what have been dubbed the “Hell Sirens,” a horn sample so warped and blown out it sounds like an alarm from the deepest pits of Hell, representing one of the most horrifying moments of the series.

A remarkable thing about Everywhere is that the hand of its creator is largely invisible. Though cuts exist, their incisions are so sure that the ego of the surgeon who made them is simply not visible. Further, it’s difficult to really compare this series to the work of others, outside of how it was made; William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops series similarly captured the sound of decaying tape loops, though his were recorded by capturing the loops as they physically deteriorated. Stage 5 also bears a passing familiarity with other agents of chaos like Merzbow and John Weise, and the project as a whole feels spiritually similar to the ghost-filled world of Burial – but again, the comparison starts and stops at their own prowesses as editors of cacophony or hauntology. The only thing that fully fits is a work of literature – the unknowable expanse of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, another tale about how even the most beautiful visions can conceal endless depth and terror.

Precisely because of Kirby’s surgical skills, despite the fact that Stage 4 is as chaotic as it is, it never feels unlistenable. Aural horror is the name of the game, yet somehow the fluid nature of the songs makes the challenge of finding coherence feel like a worthwhile task. While traversing Stage 4, nearly an hour in, we come across the most beautiful song of the whole series, “Temporary Bliss State.” This is an outlier, and for 20 minutes, the notes and static coalesce breathtakingly, and even though we can’t begin to make out where the notes have come from, it doesn’t matter. This piece couldn’t be any further from “It’s Just a Burning Memory,” but it feels like being caught in the warmest of ocean waves. Treasure it. Live within this space as long as we can. As the title makes clear, it’s temporary. Before we know it, the chaos returns, sinking its teeth in even deeper, almost to punish the subject for having escaped for as long as they did. Stage 4 ends with as much austerity as it began, echoes of melody and memory operating as fading monuments to the now-vanished power of recall.

Stage 5 does everything it can to demolish those monuments. Change within the first three stages is so gradual that the tonal shifts of the “post-awareness” half of the series can feel seismic. And here, in the most agonizing stage of the series, the biggest shift happens: melody ceases to matter. In its place, Kirby builds looming towers forged from layers upon layers of samples, the corpses of splendor and grandeur now serving no purpose but to pile upon each other. It’s an auditory traffic jam, a mirror of the way the Alzheimer’s-riddled neural pathways become clogged with plaques and unbroken-down beta amyloids. Stage 5 doesn’t let us forget the inhumanity it documents, with titles like “Stage 5 Advanced plaque entanglements” and “Synapse retrogenesis.” Ivan Seal’s artwork adorning the cover shows us a cancerous mass blooming out of what appears to be a marble staircase – a remnant of a once-grand world, almost entirely unrecognizable. Stage 5 is an affront to everything we heard before, and it doesn’t care – the second of the “Plaque entanglements” challenges us to find comfort in the mechanical pulse that marches on through the ambient horror we traverse. This stage is arguably the most emotionally devastating – and by the time we return for the finale, we’ll begin to wish we could decipher the chaos again.

And so we reach Stage 6. That chaos has subsided, but the victory against it is Pyrrhic. We’ve come a long, long way, and though there are pieces of where we began in this stage, you’d never know. Go back and listen to any song from Stage 1, and compare it to the formlessness here. Where once memory was able to make us feel something – joy, despair, camaraderie – here, the memories are incapable of articulation. Detail has abandoned us entirely, and these sounds feel closer to slow-moving glaciers. The uncaring and unfeeling titles of Stage 5 and 6 retreat, but the names we get now are emotionally-destructive. “A Brutal Bliss Beyond This Empty Defeat.” “Place in the World Fades Away.” We knew this was coming, but it doesn’t hurt less. Stage 5 hurt because everything we’ve lost was still there, somewhere in the maelstrom, and our brains desperately want to figure out how to decode it, but it can’t. Stage 6 inflicts its pain in a different way: by showing us that, no matter what, all of this is going to end, and the confusion has ruined any ability to uncover meaning within it. As the opening drone tells us, this is a fog so thick, you forget forgetting.

With six minutes to go, everything just… stops. For the first time in literal hours, we can tell what we’re hearing: the sound of a needle being dropped on a record. We hear music again, and though it’s warped with feedback, it’s still clear: a choir is singing to us. We don’t know who this chorus is, but for five minutes, we’re played out as clearly as when we entered. For nearly four-and-a-half hours, we’ve existed in spaces without humanity, and the extremely sudden return of clarity seems like a gift. It isn’t, though. For five minutes, we experience what is called “terminal lucidity,” where, somewhere on the brink of death, the ravages of dementia suddenly subside, leaving the patient to have a swan song of unexpected clarity. In Stage 6, these minutes are a brief relief, made more satisfying by what we’ve endured to get there. But as the name “terminal lucidity” suggests, this is the end. After five minutes, everything stops again. And for one minute, there is only silence, placed here for exactly one reason: to give The Caretaker, our subject, the moment of silence they deserve. With that minute, the losing battle and long decline are over.

This isn’t fully the end, though. Listeners who don’t want to exit this realm can conclude the journey with Everywhere, an empty bliss, a coda made up of fragments and songs that didn’t make the cut for the main series. This coda pulls the curtain back on how Kirby uses his title schemes to signify certain elements – notice how the “plaque” related songs all subtly mirror the havoc of Stage 5. It might seem excessive towant to listen to another 40 minutes of Caretaker’s music after spending six-and-a-half hours within the sound of someone losing the fundamental building blocks of who they are. But on the other hand – it’s not so easy to pull yourself out. The music of Everywhere sticks with you, its melodies haunting and infecting. It can be agonizing to sit with the horrors it depicts – after all, the loss of memory to the ravages of disease are not pretty or aesthetically-pleasing. Yet somehow, Kirby was able to show us a world filled with bliss and terror in a way that will stick with you long after the choir fades away.

  • The Caretaker: Everywhere at the End of Time

    Memory is a potent theme in art. …

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