Artist: Leyland Kirby
Album: Sadly, the future is no longer what it was
This is up at TLOBF.
Leyland Kirby isn’t a stranger to the epic – in 2006 as V/vm he released The Death of Rave, a gruelling and bleak 94 track response to what he saw as the lack of innovation in dance music compared to the giant steps of the 80s and 90s; in the same year, as The Caretaker, he also put together another monumental and theory-heavy masterwork the Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia set, which stretched across 6 CDs and was an attempt, using the metaphor of a syndrome in which sufferers are unable to form any new memories, to portray a culture unable to map, understand – and crucially, portray – its own historical situation or place in time, and is instead doomed to nostalgia. Sadly, the future is no longer what it was, a 3 CD/6LP set and Kirby’s first release under his own name, is similarly monumental and can be seen as a continuation of this working out of the condition of our time. The difference here is that instead of a symptom chart, Kirby has given us what is explicitly a work of mourning – something he has called a document of loss.
So what is Kirby mourning for? In his great piece in The Wire from June 2009, K-Punk rightly placed most of Kirby’s work in a Jamesonian postmodern framework. Until now Kirby has been semi-playful, utilising plunderphonics and samples of old recordings to flag up a kind of ahistorical cultural amnesia. We exist in a timeless present, into which drift random disembodied elements of the past. As such a record like A Stairway to the Stars with its samplings of 78s from the 1920s and 1930s buried beneath a scurf of sound is a literal representation of (an aspect of) the hauntological: history is repressed and returns in the form of the spectral. Sadly, the future is no longer what it was despite that messing-with-temporality title is in many respects a step backwards from this, or at least predates our sense of the hauntological. To me, despite this being primarily about the failed promise of the internet, Kirby’s angst on this new set is more a straight modernist thing: a kind of misplaced fin-de-siècle paean to our degeneration, and a mourning for a lack of cohesion and connectedness, for our walled-in insularity.
Which, I’m sure is part of the reason Sadly… feels so damn huge, and huge in a way the earlier pieces weren’t. Gone are the piecemeal constructions and the anchors of song forms to be replaced by vast drifts of sound, all composed and performed by Kirby. In sound it is related certainly to William Basinski, but I also hear a good deal of Brian Eno’s early ambient work, both in the simple repeating figures and the hanging piano chords of Harold Budd and even Robert Wyatt. That vastness though: the shortest track here is 4 minutes 16, two of the tracks stretch beyond 20 minutes and you get the sense that this is supposed to be a challenge – to encompass the whole thing you’re forced to listen with a kind of tenacity, and in an ideal world find some near-forgotten space of contemplation; and as such it has something of the weight of literature. Yes, if there were world enough and time…All of which renders the mentioning of individual tracks, or even individual moments something of a folly – as in reality the chief method is one of emanation each piece part of a larger exhalation.
Yet there are moments were you can see structures through the billowing surface: ‘The Sound of Music Vanishing’ for instance, could be some sort of manifesto – it’s a swirling vortex of sound, as if the sonic fabric were being warped by a gravitational pull. It has an element of William Basinski’s experiments with decaying tape loops about it, but they at least have a sense of form, this is a study in formlessness. ‘As I Sat Beside You I Felt The Great Sadness That Day’ similarly seems to be collapsing in on itself, great bass chords churning beneath smothered organs. The track seems to reference Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings op.11’, circling the same figure again and again. ‘Days In The Wilderness’ (the shortest track here) is like reality malfunctioning, a bulging from the other side of the mirror. And there are also moments of great, near heart-stopping beauty: ‘Tonight Is The Last Night Of The World’ is barely there, a smile set of breath-like drones; ‘Sadly The Future Is No Longer What It Was’, arguably the centrepiece, is a throb of nasal keyboard pulses and plangent but buried chords, it ends like old old Tangerine Dream, wheezing out of existence.
The reality of reviewing something like this is that it’s simply impossible to come to any sort of conclusion about its merits. It’s certainly easy to be awed by its scope and conception; it’s also easy to be impressed at the critical weight it plays with. And yet I do have some nagging problems with it, part of which is to do with the overall tone. In Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, for instance, there is a sense of a real inexpressible sorrow, of subject and tone swelling to fit the subject matter; with Sadly, the future is no longer what it was one wonders what it is that Kirby truly mourns and whether the whole enterprise is founded on some abstract notion of grief. It seems too passive to me, too content to wallow in the supposed effects it purports to critique. I’m more inclined to believe that there is something more personal to this – that there is a Dark Lady to whom all this is a whale-sized monument. Not that that would make it any more impressive, just more believable somehow.
Either way, if this is to be Kirby’s folly, it’s good to know that artists are still aiming this high and with this much sonic invention. Where he goes from here though is anyone’s guess.
There are numerous free downloads around for all Kirby's different projects:
- The Death of Rave pieces are all available for download at the V/Vm site, as are the 72 'memories' that make up the Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia Caretaker set.
- You can hear numerous pieces at the History Always Favours the Winners site, including several from Sadly, the future is no longer what it was.
- Kirby gives away tracks quite regularly on his HAFTW blog, plus posts regular updates of the various things he's working on.
- As The Caretaker, Kirby recorded a track - 'What a world, what a life, what a love' - exclusively for The Wire. You can get it from The Wire site.
- Lastly, Kirby (as The Caretaker) did a cracking mix for FACT magazine - get it from the FACT website.
- If anyone wants a read of the K-Punk piece that was in The Wire, drop me a line.
Leyland Kirby - Sadly, the future is no longer what it was
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