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The Caretaker: Patience (After Sebald)

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  • The inimitable Leyland Kirby produces some of his all-time most chilling work on his first official soundtrack.
  • published
    1 Mar 2012
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    History Always Favours the Winners
    The Caretaker
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Available on: History Always Favours the Winners LP

Patience (After Sebald) opens with ‘Everything is on the Point of Decline’, a resigned looping funereal piano sequence buried under a frankly bizarre tide of hiss, and closes with a muffled operatic voice of weary grandeur calling from the edge of time, on ‘Now The Night is Over and Dawn is About to Break’.  These, and all moments in between, are plundered from out-of-copyright works by Franz Schubert sourced by film-maker Grant Gee (Joy Division, Western Lands and the Radiohead rock-doc Meeting People is Easy amongst others) for his new film Patience (After Sebald), a collision between Gee and writer W. G. Sebald’s dreamlike and devastating psycho-geographical exploration of East Anglia – and springboard to ruminations on life and loss on an almost global scale – in Rings Around Saturn.

The Caretaker is the most widely-appreciated pseudonym of James Kirby, a.k.a Leyland James Kirby, The Stranger and former savage protagonist and proprietor of the infamous V/VM project which wholesale ripped pop songs and subjected to them to a heavy barrage of extreme noise and distortion. Despite spear-heading the breakcore/mash-up scene or whatever you want to call it, V/VM was actually a great deal more expansive than commentators at the time realised and was equally both lauded and derided. This balance began to quietly shift though with the advent of The Caretaker’s debut 1999 album Scenes from the Haunted Ballroom. Honing in on Kubrick’s revisioning of Stephen King’s anti-hero in The Shining and picking up the strands of that film’s mesmerising soundtrack, Kirby grabbed already spectral early 20th Century tea-room and swing pop by the likes of Al Bowly, and subjected this to a range of effects like echo, reverb and occasional heavy distortion, sculpting a truly powerfully emotive and haunting oeuvre across a trio of beautiful and sometimes emotionally harrowing albums. By the time of his third album though (2003’s We’ll All Go Riding On A Rainbow), you could have been forgiven for wondering just how much mileage could be left in such an idiosyncratic and specific aesthetic.

This turned out to be an unfounded fear. The explorations of memory, entropy and decay and loss of time; the colossal and ever-widening gap between past and future and the uncontrollably chaotic acceleration of time and speed-of-life and accompanying cultural detritus that had always been implicated within the project were suddenly foregrounded with an astonishingly apocalyptic 6 CD set entitled Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia (2005). This still stands as some of the most horrifically vague music ever published with barely perceptible flickers of life, no titles and no light at the end of an endlessly dark tunnel; the title refers to a condition whereby sufferers can no longer forge new memories (as exemplified in Christopher Nolan’s Memento). 2008 produced another masterpiece, the almost regal Persistent Repetition of Phrases pinning down The Caretaker’s trademark samples of ’20s and ’30s pop into locked grooves replicating the nature of damaged recall – moments endlessly rewinding themselves and replaying from the same point – a perfect balance of conceptual and structural conceit and emotional impact. Last year brought a slew of LJK releases (three volumes of entirely unexpected odd smeary video-arcade techno under the title of Intrigue and Stuff and the synth/piano heartbreak of Eager to Tear the Stars Apart) and as The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, which marked a slight return to the sound of the first 3 albums.

All of which brings us back to this new offering, Kirby’s first soundtrack and perhaps his most mature work to date. Working with a restricted pallet of piano and occasional vocal fragments has allowed a subtle, if forlorn elegance to flourish so that Patience (After Sebald) eschews narrative development in favour of world-weary atmospherics and heavy repetition and loops in a similar structural vein to the aforementioned Persistent Repetition of Phrases. Although melodic passages are plentiful they’re buried under some of the most bizarrely textured hiss you’ll ever hear: peculiarly engorged and hollow clouds of weird noise. Each piece starts abruptly, causing momentary confusion as you try to make sense of the odd blocks of restrained noise masking the notes underneath. If anything in fact, Patience seems to be a deliberate and focussed exploration of hiss to such an extreme point that it becomes elevated beyond the original source to which it – presumably – belongs. Kirby has never foregrounded the “un-musical” aspects of his sampling as blatantly as this before (in terms of highlighting it and not disfiguring it to the point of it becoming pure noise) and whereas previously this might have been a textural embellishment it seems more significant here. Added to that is the emphasis of these pieces being out-of-copyright which for a master and ideological plunderer like Kirby seems like a comment on the current issues around ownership and production in the age of illegal file-sharing.

Regardless of this, Patience (After Sebald) is an unnervingly quiet album. ‘As if One was Sinking into Sand’ sounds just like that, a locked loop of minor key piano going nowhere, lost in itself and slowly, hideously turning forever. ‘When the Dog Days were Drawing to an End’ has an achingly carefully slow nursery rhyme sequence married to the briefest of vocal murmurings. When other instruments seemingly make an appearance, or are FX’d beyond recognition,  like on ‘No One knows what Shadowy Memories Haunt Them to This Day” you feel like you’ve fallen irretrievably into the spirit world, lost in the dead air of time. ‘Increasingly Absorbed in His Own World’ may be one of the most chilling pieces of Caretaker music I’ve ever heard – an almost jaunty and “clean” wandering melody that becomes increasingly menacing through never becoming resolved. These exquisite existential miniatures will break your heart.

Jonny Mugwump

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