The Stranger :: Watching Dead Empires In Decay (Modern Love)

Leyland Kirby’s least known alias is ultimately the darkest, namely the Kafkaesque musique concrete of The Stranger, exploring all those places on which the entropy of ages have taken their toll.

If you are reading this then you’re probably already familiar with at least two of the distinct flavors of material James “Leyland” Kirby has been releasing over the years since setting up his boutique History Always Favours The Winners label. You have the decaying, spectral remnants of a bygone era explored in the vinyl crackle and hiss and wry application of old dancehall 78s by The Caretaker, and the ultra-long-form, crumbling oil paintings of his Leyland Kirby material with its vast, sweeping landscapes of queasy, fluttering doom.

But Kirby’s least known alias is ultimately the darkest, namely the Kafkaesque musique concrete of The Stranger. Indeed The Stranger is the only project that figuratively spans two generations of Kirby’s musical output. The Stranger’s second album, Bleaklow, was originally released in 2008 in the last days of Kirby’s V/VM imprint, but was then reissued as a History Always Favours The Winners release digitally via Bandcamp in 2011. Sadly it was never treated to an artists canvas style reissue on LP and CD in spite of Ivan Seal creating a suitably dark and brooding painting of a sculpture to accompany it. Someday perhaps…

There have been many allusions to the ethereal nature of the music on Watching Dead Empires In Decay to say nothing of the incomprehensible manner in which it could possibly have been created, and whilst this might read as hyperbole, trying to actually talk about or describe the music brings this fact into sharp focus. Guy Denning’s bleak, streaked and fading image of an abandoned, brutalist concrete tower block on the cover is so apt its frightening, and perfectly reflects the listening experience.

For pretty much the duration the tone is grimy, monochrome, patchwork, collage. Kirby’s output as The Caretaker was most commonly concerned with memory loss, full of half-remembered images of people and events, whereas The Stranger explores landscapes, crumbling monuments and collapsing buildings, all those places on which the entropy of ages have taken their toll.

Jagged shards of metal crash and scrape, violently piercing the veil of gauzy interference and gale-force time winds that engulf the soundstage through which we experience “We Are Enemies But Not Here.” Glass, cutlery and crockery chime, clatter and clank to form an almost tribal rhythm in the scratchy “So Pale It Shone In The Night,” and the frictional percussion, escalator squeaks, skeleton-rattling scrapes and withered strings of “Spiral Of Decline” (heard again on “Ill Fares The Land”) are positively shudder-inducing.

At its most graphic, Watching Dead Empires In Decay descends into a hellish apothecary reminiscent of Demdike Stare’s scoured and scraped Elemental to the drawl of zombie groaning, bleached-bone timbres and clanking pipes, pots and pans in “We Scarcely See Sunlight.”

It isn’t until the moldering, cracked strings of “Providence or Fate” appear, weaving their way through storeroom thunk and rattling that we arrive at anything resembling a traditional melody, driving the album into recognizably queasy, brooding and dramatic Leyland Kirby territory. Echoes of the fascinating and eclectic Intrigue & Stuff EPs bleed through the eerily time-stretched and warped synth pads, immense bass drums and gothic, shadowy melodic figures of “Where are our monsters now, where are our friends?” (the video featuring clips from Jose Val Del Omar’s short film “Fuego en Castilla” are particularly appropriate).

“Grey Day Drift” is almost whimsical in comparison, a jaunty rhythm shrouded in venting steam, but the album closes with the leaking rooftops of the abandoned, downpour soaked monotone guitar strings and fluted tons of the stark “About to enter a strange new period,” the title possibly foreshadowing what to expect next from Kirby in his various guises.

Kirby is a fitful artist, prone to long spells of silence between which he unleashes torrents of new material in a very tight window. That the very first new release from the artist comes from The Stranger is therefore something of an unknown quantity. It’s also on Modern Love rather than his own HAFTW imprint, with simultaneous LP+CD release, the latter once again a collector’s piece thanks to it being housed in another gorgeous, six-panel oversized digifile package.

Watching Dead Empires In Decay is not an album for the faint of heart and only reveals its shadowy virtues slowly, but it is well worth both investigation and persistence. Hopefully The Stranger won’t vanish for quite as long this time around.

Watching Dead Empires In Decay is available on Modern Love.

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