Some artists are in it for the long haul. And James Leyland Kirby – the Artist Formerly Known as V/Vm – is one of them.
Kirby was part of the original 90’s Brit laptop brat-pack that included DJ Speedranch and Jansky Noise. His copyright-baiting AudioMulch remixes were defiantly in-yer-face and deliberately at odds with the rest of the Eng.Electronica brigade, annoying Arts Council funders and past-it Techno DJs and Wire readers in equal measures. Releases on V/Vm Test Records were abrasive, shrill and granular-sounding, shot through with a playful but venomously surreal sense of humour. Unfortunately, the pig-masks, the Chris De Burgh mash-ups and the Falco tribute records didn’t exactly endear him to menopausal male critics. We’re a funny bunch, us Brits: it was okay in the late-90s to like laptop and noise artists from San Francisco, but not Stockport.
Britain had a cocaine hangover and had fallen out of love with New Labour; the last thing that anyone wanted to hear was V/Vm sampling pigs and filtering the fuck out of faded 80’s pop fodder. The critics dismissed it as young-turk schlock-tactics, but Kirby continued ploughing his own furrow, linking up with European noise-technicians like Mego boss Peter Rehberg and hosting an impressive archive of lost noise gems by other maverick artists. In retrospect, his early releases now seem underrated: you can hear him playing around with ideas, forms and concepts – reaching out towards something that’s buzzing around in the back of his head, even though he’s not entirely sure what it is.
Threats of litigation forced Kirby to modify his strategy. His love of cheesy late 80s Belgian New Beat resulted in a series of pitch-perfect zombie-porn beats that re-contextualised the genre for the internet generation. 2006 was spent working on the V/Vm 365 Project – a musical ‘diary’ in which he created and uploaded at least one new piece of freely-distributed music every day for a year. The result is a colossal audio-dump of genre flashbacks and non-aligned soundscapes – some with beats, some without. V/Vm 365 is a bold, radical and exhausting project, one that seems to have allowed Kirby to musically free-associate – to focus on and develop the themes that personally interest him.
Although the last decade has often been a frustrating period for him, it has enabled Kirby to float free of the electronic music midstream. He’s no longer anchored by any particular genre or short-term musical fad, which in turn has freed him from critical expectation. Recent releases as The Caretaker – particularly the remarkable 6CD box-set Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia [download here] – have seen him playing around with the idea of time, place and memory, using subtractive filtering and audio-warpage to echo the sense of dislocation and temporal displacement induced by erosive neurological disorders such as Alzheimers.
Further instalments seemed to develop these ideas further, resulting in music that ebbed and flowed like a dark, oily liquid – the audio equivalent of a lava-lamp – and which seemed to mimic thought-patterns or the neurological processes themselves. Slow tidal surges of sound are interspersed with sudden bursts of processed audio that resemble old memories briefly resurfacing in the frontal lobe. Now, as we look back and reassess his back-catalogue, it becomes increasingly obvious that his more recent work is basically an extrapolation of the late 90’s releases. It is now possible to see how Kirby’s fascination with his own memories of early 80s chart-cheese – combined with a wilful desire to eradicate or deface them, to twist them into new conceptual shapes – has since expanded out into a broader, more refined artistic palette that includes neurology, forgotten 30’s crooners and his own growing sense of mortality.
If the Anterograde sessions used Kubrick’s The Shining as their conceptual kick-off point, then the Death of Rave series occupies another sort of haunted ballroom. Kirby wiped rave music of its musical signifiers to create something that sounded hollowed-out and spectral, a sort of MDMA-depleted snapshot of a 1990 Leeds warehouse party. And, somewhere along the way, he managed to make ambient music sound cool again.
Suddenly, the critics were starting to sit up and take notice. Meanwhile, Kirby dusted off his old The Stranger persona to front the Bleaklow set, a beautifully stark series of solemn drone compositions inspired by the Yorkshire moors – meditations on wind-blasted crags and moss-covered standing-stones. His subsequent relocation to Berlin, however, offered him the chance to explore a new set of urban musical possibilities, but one that sat outside the hipster allure of minimal techno.
Late last year a haunting 15-minute video arrived in my inbox, entitled When We Parted My Heart Wanted To Die by James Leyland Kirby – the name suggesting that old personas were being shed and a new creative phase was beginning. The music was gentle and melancholic, combining a hesitant-sounding piano étude with ambient street-noise and synthesised string-pads. Kirby seemed to be referencing the 19th century German Romanticists as much as classic late 70s proto-ambient – you can hear vague echoes of Eno’s Before and After Science here, as well as a sort of urban retwist of On Land where frog and cricketsong are replaced by car-horns and the vague swssssh of passing vehicles.
The accompanying video is simple, but beautifully effective – a perfect counterpoint to the music, in fact. The viewer/listener walks through an endless double- and triple-exposed montage of bleached-out Berlin street-scenes. The effect is uncanny, almost dream-like – it’s as if you are walking the same streets over and over again on auto-pilot, your mind erased of conscious thought. The images and the music seem to combine, suggesting that different moments in time can easily co-exist within our minds – that our memories of specific times and places are capable of overlapping and replaying concurrently: an effect that is as startling as it is semi-soporific.
It is a potent idea that – denied the propulsive fuel of conscious intent – a human being is little more than a complex aggregate of accumulated memories, a living multi-track tape-recorder. Taken in this context, Kirby’s latest work comes perilously close to clutching hold of some universal truth. In attempting to explore the contours of an individual’s memories and emotional landscape perhaps he has also accidentally begun to map out the shape of the human soul.
More audio-files arrived and – like When We Parted… - they offered a blurred snapshot of a restless musician in transit. ‘When Did Our Dreams and Futures Drift So far Apart’ is an eerie electronic nocturne, a 2am Ballardian drift through deserted back-streets and abandoned business-parks.
‘The Sound of Music Vanishing’ is dense and creamy-sounding – vague shapes and impossibly elongated bjects seem to accelerate past the listener, like the after-images of a series of mile-long high-speed trains watched from the concourse of some futuristic departure terminal. It reminds me of Ballard’s nightmarish SF story The Concentration City, wherein a sleep-deprived passenger travels for 24 hours on a train journey through a never-ending urban sprawl. Paradoxically, the music is veiled in crackle and distressed vinyl hiss as if it is not a vision of the future, but some recently rediscovered audio-artefact that is actually 40 or 50 years old.
‘The Sound of Music Vanishing’ seems to re-engage with the idea of Modernism, hinting that the concept of futurosity in music might not have died with Acid House or Jungle. Perhaps we can finally start embracing some form of Futurism again – but our visions of The Future and The Past are now culturally intertwined on so many levels that it might not turn out quite the way we expect it.
With a recent website make-over (now aptly renamed “History Always Favours The Winners”) and a new album, Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was, on the horizon, the future certainly seems to be brightening for James Leyland Kirby.
Pages: 1 2