[4 December 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
British ambient artist James Leyland Kirby has surfaced in the electronic genre under various monikers, as fitting for whatever project he’s embarking on at the time. Though he has recorded as Billy Ray Cyrix and Notorious P.I.G., he also has worked as V/Vm and as the Caretaker. His other project, the Stranger, has now put out its first album in five years, and, if the album title wasn’t enough of a tip-off, it is a rather bleak and dour affair. With songs such as “Spiral of Decline”, “We Scarcely See Sunlight” and “Ill Fares the Land”, you pretty much know that you’re in for a record of dark emotion that rivals anything put out by a death metal group. But there are moments that offer optimism here, such as album closer “About to Enter a Strange New Period”, which sounds like minimalist world music from Africa filtered though the sensibilities of a modern classical composer. This song, along with a clutch of others, lifts Watching Dead Empires in Decay from the murk.
It’s not surprising to learn that Kirby is originally from the moors of northern England, because the music of the album is generally evocative of the dark and rainy mood of such swamp lands. Watching Dead Empires in Decay is a little like sticking your hands into the damp, muddy soil of the region and smelling the rot of dead leaves and grass that cling to your fingers. Opening with the static-y sounds of “We Are Enemies But Not Here”, it’s clear that Kirby, as the Stranger, is trying to embrace a certain moodiness and bring to the fore feelings of terror. There are bits on the record in the background, too, that bring to mind the most upsetting horrors of humanity. There are what could be samples on “We Are Enemies but Not Here” and “Ill Fares the Land” where you could swear that Kirby had infiltrated a den of cannibals or zombies munching on the deceased, recorded their feast and brought the material back to the surface of the earth as a kind of ethnological study of an alien culture. Truthfully, this is a record not for the faint of heart as listening to it may cause palpitations, but those brave enough to journey into Kirby’s mystifying landscape will be fascinated with the rotting corpse-like stuff that he brings to the table under this pseudonym.