The Caretaker

An Empty Bliss Beyond This World

(History Always Favours the Winners; 2011)

By Andrew Hall | 28 August 2011

There’s a moment around halfway through Leyland James Kirby’s eighth album as the Caretaker, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, which catches me off-guard every time I hear it. It happens within the track “Bedded Deep in Long-Term Memory,” which consists predominantly of a loop of a piano performance, likely originally on a 45 or a 78, weathered by surface noise, decades of warping, and a sudden and unpredictable cutting in and out across both stereo channels. The sound fades and reappears suddenly and violently several times over its extremely brief runtime, giving the recording, when listened to on headphones, an experience texture not unlike being pulled and shoved and an experience not entirely unlike partial sensory deprivation. It’s a disorienting and uncomfortable thing to do, and one of the key punches Kirby throws to evoke memory loss and dementia through this collection of recordings, a reprocessing of ballroom-era compositions both sonically familiar and utterly cold.

Like on few records, An Empty Bliss‘ focal points are rarely the notes being played on its fifteen tracks (which often blur together) or its instrumentation (pianos, horns, a handful of supporting items which are rarely anywhere near as audible) but the process by which Kirby fragments, distorts, buries, and otherwise reworks his source material to force it into his framework. While he largely leaves these songs’ melodies intact, like the progression displayed throughout William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops (2004), their development comes almost exclusively from crackle, from slight shifts in the amount of delay or reverb applied to a track, and from the gradually enveloping haze that erodes more of each loop over time, pushing at the inevitable crawl toward its complete absence.

Unlike many works made entirely from sampled instrumentation, these recordings do little to prompt listener reaction from either the act of recognition or the unexpected effects of the collage process, which often produce the hooks that make both pop and experimental sampling an effective technique when done well. As a consequence, the finished product feels like a glorified mix with a handful of treatments made to emphasize specific elements of the music being manipulated, and it already has prompted difficult to address questions over ownership, credit, and just how much work actually goes into creating a finished product when working through a method like Kirby’s.

However, its careful sequencing helps to make the most compelling possible case for this record. Consider the way Kirby reprises “Mental Caverns Without Sunshine,” reintroducing the composition in a shorter but largely unchanged form, simply cutting it off shortly afterward before moving into the album’s final loops, which in fragments come closest to seeming transformed by his edits and EQs, as single notes feel on the verge of droning endlessly before their surroundings crash through on “The Sublime is Disappointingly Elusive.” As a whole, An Empty Bliss is a remarkably cohesive listen and one that achieves its goals, but whether or not it, in and of itself, is an entirely creative work is another question entirely.