In the beginnings of civilization, we made buildings out of stone. Our ancestors craved permanence, immortality. Of course, those empires fell, leaving behind monuments of their own former magnificence and its passage, scarred by memory so subject to fabrication and forgetting, into myth or history, almost all but those etched into hermetic tombs buried in the sands of time. Still, from time to time, we uncover objects of utility from their resting places in the earth: broken jars, curse tablets, currency. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” said Ozymandias, former king of kings, resting his cracked statue head on the arid, level sands.
Already the most imperishable pieces of Western civilization’s industrial history accumulate the same scars, and already some rust and crumble, to be recovered perhaps by some future historian. Modern empires rarely offer the luxury of exodus as they lie at the endpoints of their history; there is nowhere else to go. But our records afford us an ability to inscribe a more permanent witnessing of what we were and how each piece succumbed to an environment we had once thought was the victim. What, in its obsolescence, will remain as evidence? James Leyland Kirby’s The Stranger project, from a cold future consciousness, tracks the audible signals of the decay of the old, industrial empires, recording and imitating the rhythmic coldness of their machinery, locating the listener in the midst of the decline.
Ruined industrial wastes make for beautiful photographs; the viewer, utterly alienated from the utility of the machine, can witness it as a pure object, exposed to corrosive weather and mechanical failure. The sounds of the factory offer the same monumental abstraction, and they too evoke the beautiful gloom of the exhaustion of human endeavor. It’s these inhuman sounds (though quite often Kirby makes them with his own hands, here) that fill Watching Dead Empires In Decay: percussion at slow but regular intervals, groaning hulks, friction of metal on metal. By our very estrangement from our civilization’s own creations, indeed, even its own processes of manufacturing, we already stand in a future where the objects that build our world may become mere artifacts, memories adorning our museums, colossi laying at the periphery of our cities, rotting.
Whereas his work as The Caretaker focused on memory inside the person and its loss (especially on, for instance, Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia), The Stranger focuses on the external indications of loss. Last year’s Patience (After Sebald) soundtrack evoked malformed memories of old tunes, gauzy reflections of past experiences. Watching Dead Empires In Decay is much more immediate: the machines still seem to be running, regardless of our attention. It surrounds the listener in its bleak soundscape, in many ways more appropriately “ambient” than The Caretaker’s recordings, though no doubt more insistent and rhythmic. As Kirby stated in our interview with him in 2011, The Stranger is a kind of bridge between V/Vm and The Caretaker, taking up the center of the spectrum between unbridled noise and controlled, calm piano loops.
Although Watching Dead Empires In Decay lacks content other than song titles, it evokes spaces that need no explanation — they already feel like future casualties of decline, though they still throb with a kind of life. These spaces are cold to our presence, only giving us the opportunity to understand them in our alienation from them. Fabricated evidence of a decline though they may be, these tracks do not reveal much within us except in how we react to them. Their gloominess, despite moments of beauty, is deeply oppressive. But perhaps this is the stage of history we are entering, in which the forces we once used to shape our destiny now succumb uncontrollably to entropy. And we, powerless, stand and fearfully witness the permanent waste, the consequences, left behind.