In early 2012, I went with some friends to Auschwitz in Poland and took a tour of the place which, some 70 years prior, was the location of some of the most horrific crimes ever perpetrated by man. Despite the relative peace of the place in the post-Nazi, post-Soviet era, the haunting, oppressive atmosphere has eroded little. Throughout the day, I felt nauseous, and even in the hours after my tour, I found myself unable to speak, and my stomach remained in knots all day- an attitude shared by my friends. Despite this, I left the experience a better person, more aware of the suffering of the innocents before me, and increasingly cautious of the ways, no matter so subtle, that such horrors can come again. The journey, despite its discomfort (or rather, probably because of it), is one that I believe all must experience in order to better themselves and perhaps even humanity as a whole.
Now, it may seem odd that I begin a music review with a discussion about going to a former concentration camp. The reason why I do this is because the sentiment expressed is how I feel in regards to The Caretaker’s 2016-2019 opus “Everywhere At the End of Time.” This is an album that will make you feel uncomfortable, nauseous, disoriented, and it might even break you in the process, and it is precisely because of this reason that I feel that everyone should listen to this work of art. The project, headed by producer Leyland Kirby, consists of 6 albums (or stages), each musically describing the decline of one’s mental state through dementia. With each stage, the music progressively deteriorates, until it comes to the point where it cannot even be recognized as anything remotely “musical.” This musical disintegration is best shown by Kirby’s effective use of samples throughout the album. Introducing them in a relatively unchanged format with Stage 1 (the original pieces from the 1920s and 1930s are pretty recognizable with The Caretaker’s interpretations at this part), he repeats them with more static, distortion, reverb, and splicing as the project continues, achieving a deteriorating effect. Ivan Seal’s artwork helps beautifully compliment Kirby’s music- the album covers for each stage go from odd but clearly recognizable objects to the artistic equivalent of those “you can’t name any object in this picture” photos, to a complete blank canvas for part 6. All of these elements come together in a manner that forces the listener to contemplate on the nature of memories and the horror of dementia. After all, we are all simply just a product of our memories, so what happens when our experiences are gone forever?
“Everywhere at the End of Time” has proven so successful in its depiction of dementia that the project has gained a minor bit of notoriety on the internet. Many reviewers have considered it the “most disturbing album” they have ever heard. The project has even become a challenge on TikTok, which in all fairness having people listen to an album that spreads awareness of mental illness is probably one of the better viral tasks to come from the website. It is clear to see why it has gained its reputation, as Kirby’s use of musical symbolism effectively creates a massively emotional existential experience for the listener.
I decided to give a thorough review of this work of art, explaining each stage in detail, as well as noting in bold the descriptions which Kirby gives for each stage.
Here we experience the first signs of memory loss. This stage is most like a beautiful daydream.
The glory of old age and recollection. The last of the great days.
The music of this Stage echoes the memories from a ballroom years past. Many commentators have described this as “the happy” part of the project, and it is easy to see why. The songs are simple and complete, and in the case of pieces such as “All the Loves of My Life,” can be downright lovely. The audience can be forgiven if they feel a sense of warm nostalgia when listening to these short, elegant pieces. For my part, however, I feel a sense of overwhelming sadness and unease, even this early on in the experience. The music reminds me of a past that is forever gone, that the best years are behind us. This melancholy atmosphere is further underscored when one listens to the original pieces that Kirby samples in this Stage- even here, The Caretaker’s versions are darker, slower and more sombre (compare Al Bowlly’s “Heartaches” with “It’s Just A Burning Memory” or Layton and Johnstone’s “It All Depends on You” with “Late Afternoon Drifting”). Furthermore, Kirby’s use of record scratches and pops could equally be open to interpretation. Some have seen the effects as a way to emphasize the nostalgic flavor of the tracks, while others have postulated that these showcase the coming storm of imperfect or even fading memories associated with dementia. Of course, neither of these approaches are mutually exclusive, and both effectively help paint a picture of a person’s mind slowly beginning to fade away. Even in this stage, particularly with the last few tracks, clear signs of trouble are coming. The music is already becoming more noticeably distorted and distant. Nonetheless, these are still recognizable as a song to sing and hum along to, but the dark underpinnings are less subtle.
The second stage is the self realisation and awareness that something is wrong with a refusal to accept that. More effort is made to remember so memories can be more long form with a little more deterioration in quality. The overall personal mood is generally lower than the first stage and at a point before confusion starts setting in.
Even though the songs still maintain a clear sense of melody and harmony, immediately the music is more haunting, lost, and disoriented. The signs were starting to become apparent in Stage 1, but the sudden shift in sound into more heavily distorted, warped music is nonetheless jarring. This is best reflected in the echoes and static permeating “Misplaced in Time” To see how far the disintegration has come even this early on, compare Al Bowlly’s “Heartaches” and “It’s Just A Burning Memory” from Stage 1 with “What Does it Matter How My Heart Breaks.” In this stage, the music is also more prone to abruptly ending, and even some melodies are difficult for the listener to clearly make out, creating an increasingly claustrophobic, haunting atmosphere. This is evidenced in one of my favorite tracks of the entire project, “Glimpses of Hope in Trying Times,” (based off samples of Paul Whiteman’s 1931 recording of the second movement of Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite”) which at times reminds me of something out of a warped King Crimson or Van der Graaf Generator record. Much like Stage 1, the last two tracks of Stage 2 foreshadow the coming darkness of the following stage, with the final track “The Way Ahead Feels Lonely,” creating a hollow, forlorn atmosphere where the music simply sounds empty.
Here we are presented with some of the last coherent memories before confusion fully rolls in and the grey mists form and fade away. Finest moments have been remembered, the musical flow in places is more confused and tangled. As we progress some singular memories become more disturbed, isolated, broken and distant. These are the last embers of awareness before we enter the post awareness stages.
The shift in sounds between Stage 2 and 3 is significantly less abrupt than the transition from Stage 1, and somehow that makes the music even more unnerving. Melodies and harmonies are still present, the deterioration is still apparent even from the first track, as the music seems downright sinister at times, and Kirby utilizes extensive use of reverb to make the music seem even more distant. If you are interested in seeing just how far the music has deteriorated by this point, listen to Russ Morgan’s “Moonlight and Shadows,” “Childishly Fresh Eyes” from Stage 1, and “Back There Benjamin,” the opening track for this Stage. More tracks end abruptly, and some have their endings drawn out for longer than seemingly necessary. Interestingly, Kirby also seems to begin mixing multiple songs into a single track, creating a more confused atmosphere. The deterioration is much less subtle than in previous Stages, with the decline being more dramatic and observable from one track to the next. While a sense of some sort of discernable melody and harmony is maintained throughout the Stage, Kirby continually makes it difficult for the listener to discern what instrument is playing what notes, or what piece is being sampled, and some parts of the latter part of this stage feel increasingly fragmented, like they are jumping around or trying desperately to search for something, most notably with “Burning Despair Does Ache.” Some of the tracks disintegrate to the point that pieces such as “Internal Bewildered World,” “Aching Cavern Without Lucidity” and “Libet Delay” hardly have this sense of melody, and disturbingly foreshadowing the upcoming stages, even Stage 6. By this point, it is clear the warm nostalgia of the ballroom days of yore is gone, and replaced with something haunting, terrifying, with the worst still yet to come.
Post-Awareness Stage 4 is where serenity and the ability to recall singular memories gives way to confusions and horror. It’s the beginning of an eventual process where all memories begin to become more fluid through entanglements, repetition and rupture.
This is where things truly begin to spiral out of control. Although some reviewers see Stage 3 as where things truly start to unravel , the shift between that part of the project and this one is perhaps the most jarring of “Everywhere at the End of Time.” Instead of the relatively short pieces of music that had recognizable melodies and harmonies in even the latter parts of Stage 3, the listener is assaulted by a wall of harsh noise presented in tracks no less than 20 minutes in length. While it seems like there are bits and pieces of the previous samples thrown together, they are so distorted that any attempt to connect them to the previous stages is an exercise in futility. In this cacophony, there are rare glimpses of melodic fragments that the audience longs so badly to maintain a hold of, but these moments are brief and quickly fade back into the noise. Something to note about Kibry’s comment of “fluidity,” is that while the tracks from the first three Stages are clearly distinct from each other, with Stages 4-6 there is little discernible difference between each piece, and they sometimes flow together seamlessly, although not necessarily in a clear segue like with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” or “ The Wall.” Some of the music takes a break from the cacophony to foreshadow the utter emptiness of Stage 6, particularly in “Stage 4 Temporary Bliss State” and “Stage 4 Post Awareness Confusions (3)” although not to the extent of the later parts of the project. Something interesting that I noticed from my personal experience listening to this stage is that when I listen to the end of “Stage 4 Post Awareness Confusions (3),” my brain somehow fills in the gaps between the drones with music that is simply not there. I’m not sure if there is anything to this or if my experience is unique, but I found it interesting enough to mention.
Post-Awareness Stage 5 confusions and horror. More extreme entanglements, repetition and rupture can give way to calmer moments. The unfamiliar may sound and feel familiar.
Time is often spent only in the moment leading to isolation.
Have you ever driven out in the middle of nowhere, desperately trying to search for a radio station, but all you get is static? And perhaps, once in a while, you get a strange, distorted note, or a very, very distant voice from a talk show host miles away? And the more you drive, the more the static just overwhelms the radio and you know you are going further from any radio tower or sense of civilization that could help you? This is what this stage sounds like to me, and what any attempt to achieve a memory or a sense of self can be for those suffering dementia. For the most part, any sense of melody is gone, except for very, very rare moments, and even then it seems so distant, so secluded in static, it is almost indecipherable, and most certainly does nothing to match the original pieces/memories from the first few stages. Outside of these rare moments of relative bliss, the listener is attacked with a barrage of static and random, incredibly distorted instrumental noises that create a sense of, well, confusion and horror. The wall of noises thrown at me often made me disoriented, and even at times nauseous. Some of the sounds made within the cacophony sometimes to me sounds like cries of help and even heavily distorted screaming. It should be noted that unlike works such as the excellent “You Won’t Get What You Want” by the Daughters or Swans’ “The Seer,” the noise doesn’t seem to hit you in your skull so much as seem to slowly envelop you from within. The closest the audience gets to a break from this cacophony is the almost beautiful and endurable track “Stage 5 Synaptic Retrogenesis,” which foreshadows Stage 6 by throwing the reader into waves of drone noises, while still maintaining the same sense of loss and uneasiness that permeates the rest of the tracks through the static and indiscernible instrumental noises. Even in this environment, any sense of melody vanishes, and the listener is lost within the abyss of noise. Eventually, the cacophony returns at the end of the track and throughout the track of “Stage 5 Sudden time regression into isolation,” only to eventually fade into the absolute echo drones that dominate Stage 6, letting the listener know any hope of connection or recognition of anything is now gone.
Post-Awareness Stage 6 is without description.
After the chaos of the previous two stages, the… nothingness of Stage 6 almost comes as a relief. Gone is the cacophony of noise thrown at the listener, but also gone is any musical sense, any hope of retrieving anything resembling a melody. Now, the listener is adrift in a sea of nothingness, receiving only faint echoes of anything amid the subtle static. I have heard others describe this Stage as being in a cave of pure darkness and isolation, with no light and no way out, and I honestly cannot think of a better way to describe the sheer hopelessness and loneliness brought out by the sounds. There are subtle references to Stages 4 and 5 in tracks such as “Stage 6 A brutal bliss beyond this empty defeat,” but even these grasps to the disorientation of before are so muddled and hidden by the static that they too tend to get lost in the nothingness. Some reviewers have noted that the musical emptiness could symbolise the acceptance of one’s fate, while others have postulated that it shows that the mind is so far gone that it cannot even form the most basic of memories. There is definitely an argument to be made for both of these interpretations, and I do not believe that the two ideas are mutually exclusive. Indeed, the relative calm when compared to Stages 4 and 5 does seem as though there is a sense of peace and acceptance, but the underlying sombre mood, with the “echoes” sometimes even resembling heavily distorted and muffled screams, emphasize loneliness and isolation. This juxtaposition makes Stage 6 without a doubt the most unnerving of all of the different parts in the project.
For a project of this length and scope, it could be difficult to tastefully and successfully stick the landing for the end. While I don’t want to describe the ending in too much detail (I feel like it is far more effective for the listener to go in blind), I will say that Kirby joins the likes of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in crafting one of the most beautiful and cathartic musical conclusions. I think it is impossible not to feel something when listening to the final 8 minutes of the album, and the listener is forgiven if they (as so many reviewers before) break down to tears from the sweet beautiful release afforded to the listener after hours of sheer musical breakdown. Does “Everywhere at the End of Time” have a happy ending or a sad one? Ultimately, I think this is left open for the audience to interpret.
This album is not for the faint of heart. If you are in a dark place mentally, I definitely recommend listening to this with extreme caution. That being said, I highly support art that makes those experiencing it uncomfortable, provided the artist treats both the audience and subject matter with care and respect. Much like Arnold Schoenberg’s “A Survivor From Warsaw,” which forces the listener to experience the horrors of the Holocaust, or Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” which details the pains of Poles throughout their history, “Everywhere at the End of Time,” will put its audience through the emotional gamut, but respects the listener and those affected by dementia. The project is one of, if not the greatest and arguably most important pieces of musical works to come out since William Balinski’s ambient 9/11 requiem “The Disintegration Loops” from 2003. For my own part, I found myself more aware of the sheer horrors of dementia, as well as doing more research and spreading awareness on the subject. I personally cannot recommend “Everywhere at the End of Time” enough, and I feel as though everybody who can stomach it should give this a listen. The experience is a harrowing one, but ultimately it enriches those willing to go through it.