When is an album not an album? Perhaps when it consists of 20 songs — two of them topping 20 minutes each, over half over 10 minutes, none shorter than four — spread over three CDs, at which point it can feel as much like a challenge as it does an act of artistic self-expression. That’s certainly a teetering point that we’ll be debating in this week’s MP3 Discussion Group, where the object of our collective fixated listening is Leyland Kirby‘s elegiacally titled Sadly, the Future Is No Longer What It Was, released on the label History Always Favours the Winners.
Participating with me in this week’s MP3 Discussion Group are:
Alan Lockett: “I write music reviews and commentary on ambient/drone, the more adventurous end of techno/house, post-dub, and IDM. Based in Bristol, epicentre of the Dub-zone in the Wild West of England, I can mainly be read on igloomag.com and furthernoise.org.”
Joshua Maremont: “I record as Thermal and pursue my musical and other obsessions in San Francisco.”
The conversation will play out in this post’s comments section.
A little note on discussion format: This is by no means a closed discussion, so do feel free to join in. Also, the initial posts by participants were all written before they had an opportunity to see each other’s take on the album in question.
More on the album at its label’s website, haftw.wordpress.com, and on Kirby and his numerous pseudonyms at discogs.com.
These, by the way, are the covers of the three individual albums contained in Sadly, the Future Is No Longer What It Was.
11 thoughts on “MP3 Discussion Group: Leyland Kirby’s ‘Sadly, the Future …’”
James Kirby’s projects have long been characterised by themes of perception of the past and a certain element of dysfunctionality. He’s deployed sardonic plunderphonics (V/Vm) and warped/pitchshifted samples of old ballroom and show tunes (The Caretaker) to tap into aspects of cultural amnesia. The suggestion seemed to be that we now exist in a timeless present into which disembodied elements of the past randomly drift: hauntology – something like repressed history returning in spectral form. But under his new moniker of Leyland Kirby, he seems reinvented with an almost neo-romantic Wild Poet-cum-Sulky Young Man tweak; and “Sadly, the future is no longer what it was” feels not so much hauntological in spirit as elegiac, mourning the loss of once-cherished futurist visions – dreams which have issued predominantly in disconnectedness and isolation.
Kirby’s commentary: “Here we stand, twenty years on from the first CD, and our optimism has been gradually eroded away collectively. ‘Tomorrows World’ never came. We are lost and isolated, many of us living our lives through social networks as we try to make sense of it all, becoming voyeurs not active participants. Documenting everything. No Mystery. Everything laid bare for all to see.” For him, the recordings are“…the soundtrack to a world in decline, the heroism of modern life, a document of loss, an essay in gloom, delivered with a brutally honest appreciation of the pitiful truth.”
For Boomkat, and sundry other review sites, there are: “Echoes of Eno, Koner, Deathprod, Debussy, Badalamenti and Lynch”… “without doubt one of the most important, substantial releases of the year.”
For a lone dissenting journo on Paris Transatlantic, it’s less substantial: “Kirby, also known as The Caretaker, has come a long way from that nasty smelly V/Vm pig farm, and seems to have spent a lot of time recently listening to Satie, Budd and Basinski before dishing up this, another triple CD / triple 2LP’s worth of reverb-drenched spaced out muzak…” “…this dreary sub-Satie piano noodling plugged in to silky synths soon outstays its welcome. And three and a half hours of it really tries the patience.”
Me, I’m still working my way through it. I seem to have spent more time reading about it than actually listening to it, and I’m kind of overwhelmed by the sheer weight of it all and the overwrought indlugence of some of it. My reaction could be illustrated by the first two tracks, which point to what is engaging/engulfing and what I find more problematic.
Track #1, “When We Parted My Heart Wanted To Die” is way too rich for my blood – a tear-jerking affair of grandiose rippling piano and strings that comes on like sub-Schubert-cum-Badalamenti (albeit with a nice ghostly reverb halo suggesting something like Eno/Budd “The Pearl”). Going for the Big boo-hoos at curtain opening. No thanks.
Track #2: “The Sound Of Music Vanishing,” on the other hand, is immediately inviting to these ears – a swirling careening vortex of billowing and crackling harmonised noise squalls. Basinski blown up and Phillip Jeck amplified and shades of the dark underbelly bits of Lynch’s soundtracks. A miasma of listening matter in there. Yes please.
There is something monumental about a three-CD box, and within the realms of experimental music both Zoviet-France and Omit have encased some of their most striking work (Popular Soviet Songs And Youth Music and Quad, respectively) in this form, while The Hafler Trio’s trilogy, begun with Kill The King, represents one of its peaks of sustained intensity and depth. Â And while for some the filling of three eighty-minute discs might appear to be excessive or indulgent, for Leyland Kirby, whose old project The Caretaker released Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia at the length of six such discs, this trilogy seems focused, restrained, disciplined.
Whereas The Caretaker seemed emotionally distant, like a collector of others’ memories – perhaps akin to the Lethian archivists in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film After Life – Kirby here seems to be working with more raw, emotional, and personal material here, and Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was dismisses the haunted abyssal big band in favor of a lonely palette of piano, strings, and noise. Â From the opening, When We Parted, My Heart Wanted To Die, through its closing, And At Dawn Armed With Glowing Patience, We Will Enter The Cities Of Glory (Stripped), this is a narrative of loss, of pain, of acceptance, and although Kirby calls it a “six month fairy tale” it strikes me more as single night’s Vargtimmen (Bergman’s wolf hour of deaths, births, dreams) and a single person’s harrowing of that night. Â Having recently seen Lars Von Trier’s film Antichrist I found myself thinking of that triptych and of his three beggars of Grief, Pain, and Despair while listening to Sadly, yet while both works are in their own way cathartic Kirby seems to have found his way less destructively back to the light, for at a certain point – and for me it is the towering noisescape of A Longing To Be Absorbed For A While Into A Different And Beautiful World – he turns and leaves the pain behind him. Â If this really is about a girl, as the titles suggest, he has made one of the best break-up albums of our decade, but even if he is simply pining for Manchester from Berlin, this expanse of loneliness is one of the most beautiful and rewarding I have encountered. Â It is difficult after a first listen to such an epic for me to sum it in any useful way, but for the moment I will share my map of its various points of interest.
1.1. Roedelian melodies at the close of the film, the projector flickers, and the viewer has left through the side door, listening from beside the freeway.
1.2. A beautiful psychedelic string orchestra heard from beneath someone else’s skin.
1.3. The orchestra has switched to a requium and begun a descent into the depths of the earth through a haunted factory floor.
1.4. Shinya Tsukamoto’s Haze: Â beauty just beyond the membrane of pain. Â Klaus Schulze’s Irrlicht: Â strings heard through a radio telescope. Â Distortion at Maeror Tri levels, but an aetherial atmosphere near Tangerine Dream or Michael Stearns.
1.5. Enoesque endtitles with the steam-chugging of gentle machinery.
1.6. The piano bar at the end of the world. Â Bohren und Der Club Of Lynch. Abandon all hope ye who lounge here.
2.1. The Pearl, crumbled to dust, and slowly blown away, false memories of HOH and Kitaro.
2.2. Shutov semblance, twinkling synths, intestinal drones. Â The same room in two worlds, awake in both.
2.3. The pretty music in a deleted scene from a horror film, recollections of a non-survivor, old oscillators oozing through old fuzz.
2.4. Everything through the grinder now. Â The light is bright, but so far away. Â Music of the spheres Troumed.
2.5. The tents were pulled up, the carney is gone, the music melted into the dirt and stayed. Â Tears were shed here, but no wings.
2.6. From the documentary in which not everything has perished. Â The orchestra is pulled from the sea, and breathes again. Â Froese and Kitaro lurk here.
2.7. Piano, only slightly dissolved, I emerge.
3.1. Simple piano and synth, Music For Films, twinkling, the abyss gaping below. Â Am I asleep, or are you?
3.2. The needle in and occasionally out of the groove. Â The cables of the inward descent have frayed and snapped.
3.3. Climbing at last, a mountain of noise, in like Aloof Proof, out like Sealand or Stanlow.
3.4. I am out, into the air, into the light, something has changed since I was last here, all thump and wheeze, a fanfare for the common no-one.
3.5. A meditation for a place, in which I am no longer within myself. Â The mist is thick, the dawn is still dark, but Brian Eno is on the next bench.
3.6. The glittering dazzle, reflected in dark deep water. Â The rumble is still here, will always be here.
3.7. I found joy and can show you the scars.Â
This sizable album, or collection of albums, isn’t monumental so much as monument-oid. It has all the trappings (that’s too negative), the hallmarks (that’s too programmatic), the essential elements, of something monumental (its size, its emotional heft, its blank aesthetic facade, its immersive dimensions), but even after numerous listenings, I’m not sure if it’s achieved that goal. Still, I keep listening, and that’s got to mean something.
Of course, size is likely not the sole concern of Leyland Kirby, but it’s certainly one of the key factors distinguishing ‘Sadly, the Future.’ I found myself, while listening, wishing that the melodic fragments were more muted — they approach a ‘Chariots of Fire’ drama at times — and wondering how Kirby can so easily go from an almost melodramatic impulse to tiny surface textures.
Throughout my listening, the whole thing sounded familiar, but I was incapable of figuring out what it reminded me of.
And then I sorted it out. Most mornings, on my daily commute, I walk through the plaza in front of City Hall here in San Francisco, and every morning there is in the plaza a small group of tai chi exercisers — Falun Gong, I believe — doing their modestly paced ritual to that kind of melodic music that is at once emotionally raw and synthetic, saccharine — sometimes of a quasi-classical mode (Western classical, as if a computer program had been made to mimic Mozart) and sometimes Eastern. But the music is played on a boombox, a shaby old thing that dates from the days of Doug E. Fresh. And, as they say on the late-night infomercials, that’s not all. The tai chi score plays out across a busy street from the public library, and that street is crowded with cars all morning long, along with the sound of water being used to hose down the sidewalks where homeless had been encamped all night. The tai chi music, fragile enough to begin with, playing as it is on dying D-size batteries through splintered speakers made of decayed plastic, is almost entirely lost in the soundtrack of street noise.
And that which is not lost amid the street noise is what at its best Leyland Kirby’s album sounds like. It’s a noble goal.
Alan and Marc, you have both hit on what seems a key feature of this trilogy and not simply a new color but a new type of paint on Kirby’s palette: its explicit, unashamed, and as far as I can detect mercifully unironic romanticism. This expanse of music, with its titles, paintings, and sounds, appears to be rooted in the old notion (proven by so many pop stars who lost their demons and their muses at about the same point in their discographies) that out of one person’s creatively channeled pain can come a work of great beauty – or at least compelling power – for another. Kierkegaard mocked this in his illustration of the victim roasted inside a bronze bull, whose screams were music for his tormentors, but for anyone versed in the catalogs, for example, of Joy Division and Scott Walker this mockery is misplaced; it is not that we as listeners enjoy others’ pain or that we as musicians seek pain in order to make more marketable records, but rather that pain can be creatively cathartic, although I should add that the same can be said of any emotionally deep furrow. In the trilogy at hand I find the romantic impulse hard at work, and it is not off the mark to mention the grandiosity of Chariots Of Fire or even to hint at the sub-Copelandisms of John Williams, although to me Kirby is using these as references: we are not listening to something written to make us cry but rather to something known to resemble tearjerking music. And yet, again, I do not find irony here: we are neither crying another’s tears nor commenting upon the idea that another is sharing those tears; rather it as if this music were a means for one person to be alienated from his own emotional experience through its expression in sound. From Kirby’s page on this release:
“As a document it’s emotional and personal, heartbreaking and gentle, it’s a six month fairy tale from the big city complete with heroes and villains, with winners and losers.”
Fairy tales, after all, use stock characters and familiar landscapes: witches always have pointy hats, bridges always have trolls beneath them, stepmothers are always wicked, and we know the rest. Perhaps then I am trying to suggest that Kirby is using these stock elements – the lonely piano, the swirling noise, the slathered-on strings – to mythologize his own experience in familiar tropes, to allow us to understand its emotional trajectory while still leaving us with something both beautiful and mysterious as an artifact of that journey.
Yeah, I wouldn’t apply the word irony to it myself, and I agree that a lot of the melodic material on the album, in both structure and tonality, is intended to not only re-imagine but to stoke a memory of a kind of music that is unabashedly and outwardly emotional — it’s just that in most of the cases, it’s too rich for my blood.
Take “When We Parted, My Heart Wanted to Die.” It sounds very much like Angelo Badalamenti, each melodic fragments giving way to a considered pause (but Balamenti isn’t necessarily inherently ironic, which is why I prefer him contextualized by David Lynch), and then there are these synthesized, pneumatic blasts, like soft white noise generators, which take the edge off the melodrama (or, perhaps more to the point, add an edge to it). But ultimately the tension in the melody is what comes close (and only close) to making it palatable to me, the way, after the halfway mark, it seems to continue to end, like Liberace playing the 1812 Overture on a waterlogged piano.
By name alone, “The Sound of Music Vanishing” is more up my somnolent alley — the strings of some old Hollywood movie are in there, shredding along, but it’s all being murk-ified by a dense machine along the lines of Gavin Bryars’s Titanic, or Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon (this track is one of the ones closest in mind to the anecdote of mine above).
Sorry to have missed out on this discussion so far! Especially having also confronted the massiveness of ‘Sadly’ in all its three CD grandiosity this week…
That scale does seem to signal something equally large in Kirby’s ambition here. But I’m not sure it’s achieved – or, at least, in a way I’m able to recognise.
It’s impossible not to be impressed by the ambition & seriousness of purpose at work; it’s somewhat possible, unfortunately, to feel that your investment yields less return than you might have expected.
That feeling may well have something to do with the strategy that Joshua & Marc highlight so well – “not only re-imagine but to stoke a memory of a kind of music that is unabashedly and outwardly emotional” & “to mythologize his own experience in familiar tropes”.
If not exactly ironic, this strategy does seem to put some kind of distance between Kirby & the sometimes uncomfortably tinkly parts of ‘Sadly’.
Something of this sort is going on with the titles too. Face value is definitely not how we’re meant to take ‘The Beauty Of The Impending Tragedy Of My Existence’! It’s the opposite of mock-heroic – mock-tragic, I guess – but somehow reserving the option to mean it too…
You can feel the same thing
As I was listening to the album (& the versions & extras from http://www.brainwashed.com/vvm/haftw/releases/maillist01.html), the piano-led pieces stood out & were too rich for my blood too. Revisiting disc 1 while writing, though, they’re a smaller part of a richer whole than I remember!
I’d rather that he spent more time exploring the Caretaker-ish/hauntological idea of ‘The Sound of Music Vanishing’ (both its style & concept; NB: chosen as a highlight without taking in Marc’s choice…). But I’ve come to feel pretty benign towards – though not often very moved by – the piano pieces as drops of colour in ‘Sadly’s otherwise austere vastness.
Stately, crystalline, unadorned – ‘Not As She Is Now But As She Appears In My Dreams’ was the most affecting of the piano pieces for me, ironically (the single-note plonkings of ‘3-06 We All Won That Day, Sunshine’ the least…).
Julian singles out Not As She Is Now But As She Appears In My Dreams as affecting, and this one stood out for too, but for a different reason: it seemed hesistant, almost stumbling, in comparison with the confidence of At Dawn Armed With Glowing Patience, We Will Enter The Cities Of Glory (Stripped) or even, yes, We All Won That Day, Sunshine. It is as if we are meant not only to hear a piano but to hear a player in a particular emotional state – precarious at the close of the second CD and buoyed before the end of the third – at that piano. Here I am reminded of Cindytalk’s In This World, in which simple atmospheres of piano and field recordings, placed with the grim context of screeching guitars, dissonant violins, and lyrical references to Pasolini’s Salo, became menacing, as if the beauty had been presented only to be dismantled or seen to be quite other than beautiful at a different distance. Both Cindytalk’s and Kirby’s records, in their own ways, are experiences to be survived.
In case people haven’t seen this, here’s a video made to accompany one of the most engaging and affecting pieces (for me): “A Longing to be Absorbed for a While into a Different and Beautiful World”:
Works very well in a kind of expressionist way. I can hear undertones of Aphex and Tim Hecker without it sounding like either – in fact, there’s more of the ethos of The Caretaker at work here; that kind of warped elegiac melody seeking to assert itself over the unpitched material careening around it and not be sucked down into a vortex of noise. What lifts it above The Caretaker is a certain almost transcendent/transformative/overcoming quality – though this feeling is possibly driven by the video imagery.
Leyland Kirby: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zArVYIIIF00
The Caretaker (from ‘Persistent Repetition Of Phrases’): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQlDlxA9unI
William Basinski (from ‘Melancholia’): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUhimrxosdw