Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Caretaker + Baron Mordant

Baron Mordant
Mark of the Mould

The Caretaker
Everywhere at the end of time
Everywhere, an empty bliss

The Wire, June 2019

by Simon Reynolds

It’s twenty years now since the first stirrings of what came to be called hauntology: Boards of Canada’s Music Has A Right to Children, Position Normal’s Stop Your Nonsense, early releases by Mount Vernon Arts Lab and Broadcast… and The Caretaker’s Selected Memories from the Haunted Ballroom. After eleven releases under that name, James Kirby is retiring his best-known alias. And with another leading figure in the genre-not-genre - Baron Mordant, a/k/a Ian Hicks, the man behind Mordant Music the group and the label - also calling time on his public self, it’s tempting to see these career-closing releases as tombstones for the sound-sensibility. Is this the moment to give up the ghosts? Or will hauntology enjoy some kind of after-afterlife?

In hindsight, “memoradelia” – an alternative name proposed by Patrick McNally – might have been a better way to go, avoiding the Derridean cargo carried by the term hauntology. Decay, the attrition of aging, memory’s uncanny persistence and terrifying frailty are at the maggoty core of Mark of the Mould and Everywhere at the end of time.  A memory is a kind of ghost,  sharing its queasy quality of ontological instability: a present absence, neither here nor there, now nor then.  One psychoanalytical explanation – or explaining away – of  the ghost (at least ghosts familiar to us, ghosts we recognize) is that they are symptoms of incomplete mourning:  memories we’re unable to let go.

Continuing the exploration of memory disorders in Theoretically pure anterograde amnesia  and other earlier Caretaker releases, Everywhere at the end of time – a gargantuan project launched in 2016 and now closing with its the sixth installment, plus the free side-album Everywhere, an empty bliss - is Kirby’s attempt to mirror in sound the stages of Alzheimer’s. Identity, memory and a sense of temporality are interdependent. As the first two props of the self crumble, perception of time also erodes away. What ensues is – as far as we can tell - - a prolapse of consciousness, an undignified slide into a hellish limbo of non-time. That threshold is reached on the latest batch of Everywhere: where earlier tracks lasted three or four minutes each, the new pieces dilate monstrously, ranging from 21 to 23 minutes. Listening to these entropic epics models the ego-death of advanced senility: it’s virtually impossible not to drift off into inattentive vacancy.

The first Caretaker record took its concept (and artist name) from the ballroom scene in The Shining: Jack Nicholson’s writer turned hotel caretaker turned revenant psychopath hallucinating the sound of the 1930s light-jazz ballads that the Overlook’s guests had decades earlier slow-danced to (specifically the songs of Al Bowlly, a British entertainer popular between the wars but now almost completely forgotten).  Listening to the drawn-out death rattles of these final Caretaker pieces, you might think of another iconic Kubrick scene: the uncomprehending horror of  HAL the rogue computer in 2001, A Space Odyssey,  as his brain is dismantled bit by bit, the blanks in his consciousness getting bigger until all that is left is the steadily decelerating ditty “A Bicycle  Made for Two”.

The Caretaker could have renamed himself The Caregiver, for on this project he resembles a sonic nurse in a hospice for the terminally ill. Kirby is a custodian in another sense. For over two decades, he’s collected thousands of dirt-cheap shellac 78 rpm discs of Bowlly-type music, from which he’s lovingly sampled, looped, and filtered to create these tracks. The result is an alchemized archive of popular song:  music whose original “people” are either dead or on the downward slope. For to be capable of remembering this music as a real-time, living culture, you’d have to be in your nineties now.  What Kirby presents here could be heard as the faint, faded memory-fragments of once-beloved tunes as they waver on in atrophying minds.

It’s a style of music that, as Kirby has noted, always already ached with nostalgia, oozing a woozy maudlin warmth as comforting as a mug of Ovaltine. His treatments layer an extra sepia-tint patina of Pathé pathos. Suffused with a kindly “golden hour” glow, the earlier instalments of the project loop sonorous horns, harp twinkles and piano ripples into cul de sacs of consciousness: the melodic equivalent of those mental glitches that Americans call “senior moments”  (a self-deprecating, uneasily humorous term that shows you are still in command because you are able to identify them as aberrations). Now and then, there’s a resemblance to the Gas albums, but replacing Alpine grandeur with fireside intimacy. The titles are heartbreaking (“I Still Feel As Though I Am Me”) and often describe the music more effectively than the reviewer ever could (“Long term dusk glimpses,” Internal unravel”).

Across Everywhere’s nearly seven hours duration, everything seems to wilt and yellow as the album progresses, or rather, regresses. Sound starts to reach our ears as though through a swaddling ball of fluff that’s wrapped itself around the needle. Where before the rhythm of the pieces was a gently bobbing sway like the rise and fall of a merry-go-round horse, now it’s an agonizingly protracted pestle-and-mortar grind, slowly pulverizing thought into sparkly dust. By the end – the 20-minute long pieces - there’s no discernible motion, just a sandstorm standstill, eternity-as-abyss.

The Caretaker faces decay and death with serenely fatalistic acceptance, aestheticizing the inevitable extinction of personality. On Mark of the Mould Baron Mordant’s subject is middle age and the response is different: he’s not going down without a fight. There’s a feeling of writhing struggle to this album, a man at war with the spores he’s inhaled. Comprising fifteen tracks plus the bonus inclusion of their instrumental versions, Mould is the grand bouffe finale to a career, Hicks sicking up a feast of all his favorite riddim tics and danktronica textures. 

Much of Mould resembles the vastly more compelling music that dubstep could have been. True, few things could be more boring in 2019 than manifesting a dub influence, but Mordant’s idea of it descends more from Cabaret Voltaire than Lee Perry: it’s a dead-aired, dessicated, deep-underground-silo version of dub, built around cold delays rather than misty-mystic reverb. Imagine Shackleton unshackled. Call it Middle-Aged Echo. Other portions of Mould supply a banging ‘n’ clanking update of early Nineties techno - “(It’s A) MariMba (You Knob)” could be a great lost track from the sessions for DHS’s “House of God” – that exploits the capacity for detail and dimension afforded by current software.

Elsewhere Mould overlaps with eMMplekz, Hicks’s glorious collaboration with Ekoplekz’s Nick Edwards, except that in this case the Baron is handling not just the verbals and lyrics but the backing tracks too. Being a genius word-wrangler means that the Baron is better equipped to describe what he’s doing than me. Trying to tag his unique delivery and idiom - a Tourettic monologue riddled with floridly fetid imagery and gruesomely tortured puns - I toyed with formulations like “mental effluent,” only to be outmatched by a passing reference to “spoken turd” on one track here.  Likewise, hoping to pin down the particular tone of sour derision in Hicks voice,  I realized eventually that le mot juste was in fact “mordant”.

Peter Cook, or certain characters that the comedian played, could be a reference point for the vocal tone – gruffly classless, indeterminately Southern English, withering, withered, the sardonic sneer undercut by its own impotence – but doesn’t capture the uniquely macabre brand of Anglo-surreal humour on offer. That voice and the encrypted private slanguage are maintained not just on record, but in press communiques, email correspondence and interviews, making you wonder if Hicks uses it in everyday life too, when shopping or making up bedtime stories for his kids.

As for what Hicks rants about, one ripe terrain is the sort of modern-day U.K. ugliness that inspires online forums like Shit London and Boring Dystopia. A Robert Macfarlane of built-up Britain, Hicks is an accomplished “visual noticer” with a keen eye for the unsightly and characterless.  But he’s equally observant when it comes to the unreal life of the Internet – the not-so-great indoors - especially the fatuities of today’s music scene. Many lines here read like snippets from blog reviews or Boomkat blurbs. “The Internet Did It” points the finger obliquely at, well, all of us, probably: the crime is left undefined but could refer to the economic nonviability of the leftfield musician’s life in the age of streaming, or to a creeping paralysis and hemorrhaging of meaning and momentum. Choice phrases fly by almost too fast to register: some near-abstract (“lichen 2-step”, “are you being serf?”, “Disneyhole”) and others nearly too on-the-nose as parody or invective (“make an avant sound-design tune that drops into a chamber of grimy vox”, “listen to these cunts waffle on about branding themselves”).

But – and here’s where midlife-crisis comes in – much of the time the target of the tongue lashing is Hicks himself.  “Anything With a Pulse” self-berates with cries of “you’re nothing nearly / there’s just nothing coming through” that suggest a battle with creative block, and it’s followed by “Somebody Wake Up Hicks”  whose title makes it clear that the “you” in the previous song was really “me”. Defying his own sense of abject futility - “there’s thousands of LPs out there like this” goes one line –this album froths over with a last-stand surge and splurge of creativity. And, a vague affinity with Sleaford Mods aside, there’s really nothing else out there in modern music that resembles the Baron’s particular blend of sound and spiel.

Themes of deterioration, self-doubt, and declining powers pervade, even as the sounds and beats rattle and ping ferociously. “Blong” features a child-voice jeering “Dad is a dick”.  “Insane Note” has a line about being “persona non grata” and a grim, sinking-feeling chant “you know that / I know that,” while its title could be read as one step further along from the “sick note” that gets you off school or work. “Percussive SuMMer” is a piss-stream of consciousness spraying into a latrine of sound: the lyric reads like a real-time vignette of Hicks musing to himself in a local tavern, supping a pint, roaming through random memories and rejoicing that a deferred jury summons will allow him a few days to make some tunes.  “KFC’s Toilets” might be an answer record to Burial’s “In McDonalds.” The little kid’s voice – presumably Hicks Jnr - reappears on “Aldi Bin Bag” chanting something indecipherable (“Arseland, oh yeah”?).

All the verbal bile and brackish sound roil towards a clammy climax on “Only For Fun Game,” the penultimate track. Framed with voice-shivers that lurch upwards in pitch, it’s a lament for a life wasted onscreen. “There’s a day out there I really should get to,” goes the chorus. “A life under sky that’s vented and Lenten….  These are the days you can’t get back/ the melted clocks on Dali’s back.” After a flurry of lyric-shards ranging from abstract to uproarious -  “turned on by budget sportwear”, “senile stepovers”, “reduce the risk of a fall while bathing,” “no notifications are good notifications,” “everyone’s over-compensating for a Tavares deficiency” – Hicks signs off with “this is a gentle piss-take”. It’s the last decipherable utterance on the album – the closing track “Back in the US(S)B” fades out with mumbled vocal sounds – and perhaps the last words of a career.

On “MeMbrane” from 2016’s “criminally overlooked” (a Mordant Music joke, that, but true) eMMplekz album Rook to TN34, Hicks described himself as “mildly embittered since the turn of the century”, a reference to the very earliest Mordant emissions.  Two decades on, hauntology remains a surprisingly bustling field, with records, books, events, conferences, still occurring regularly. Only last month, there was the unexpected appearance of a BBC Ideas Film titled ‘What Is Hauntology? Why Is It All AroundUs?’.  But as a “news item”, it felt tardy not topical. For there is a definite sense of this region having  being mapped out long ago, the footpaths worn bare by visitors.  

Elsewhere on Rook to TN34, Hicks crooned mordantly: “Well, I should be moving on / Singing the same old song.”  Perhaps it is time to open the windows and clear away the soupy staleness with a ventilating blast of otherness and newness.  A gust of youthful energy to chase away the ghosts for good.

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