The idea of a three-CD set of gloomy ambient music might initially be a hard sell, perhaps, but James Leyland Kirby’s an interesting character, having previously worked as The Caretaker and V/Vm. This, his first release under his own name, grew from a single album into a triple CD over its period of gestation. According to their maker, these pieces are the soundtrack to a world in decline – hence its downbeat title.
These haunted works, like most ambient music, run the risk of retreading old ground long-since covered by everyone from Tangerine Dream to Organum, let alone the more modern purveyors of ambient electronica. To be sure, there’s a sense of decay here that lifts these pieces out of the New Age category for the most part. Nonetheless, there’s no shortage of what might be called “planetarium music,” washes of analog synth perfect for accompanying a PBS special on the heavens.
Other moments, however, stand out, either because they have more emotional heft, or simply because their sounds are more unique. In reality, creating waves of floating synths is not difficult, and we’ve all heard it before many times. There are moments across the three CDs, for example, that could be stand-ins for the Bladerunner soundtrack and nobody would notice the difference. When Kirby injects slim melodic elements, it counts for a lot: At times, the piano comes to the foreground rather than the synth, and it grounds the music in the downtrodden reality that Kirby seemingly wants to evoke. Notes reverberate into the distance as a desolate wind blows, and rather than a vague space we can imagine a real-world connection. One of the tracks on the second CD succeeds particularly well, thanks to shimmering crystalline tones, slowed and wobbly like drunken carnival music. Likewise, the third CD finds Kirby conducting a noisier, more bustling urgency that draws attention to itself in a way that much of the music here doesn’t.
It feels like cheating to close by saying that your mileage may vary, but it’s undeniably true in this case. If you have the tolerance for nearly 240 minutes of droning ambience, this could be your release of the year. As it stands, though, it’s a shame that Kirby didn’t curb his ambitions slightly and offer a more focused release.
By Mason Jones