The Stranger, "Watching Dead Empires in Decay"
The Stranger‚Äôs second album sounds very different from his 2008 release Bleaklow. Whereas that debut was doused with a sense of trekking over ancient stones and moors of Northern England, this record feels much more interior, claustrophobic and urban. The rhythms boom and snake through a threatening, shattered, dystopia like rats crawling through pipes beneath a recently evacuated building.
James Leyland Kirby* has created myriad projects, spanning the mysterious and the ludicrous, over the past two decades, and The Stranger is arguably the least known of his album-length ventures. This second release shares, most evidently on "Providence or Fate," a little of the melancholy, ghostly beauty, if none of the treated vocals, associated with his best loved guise, The Caretaker. That piece and the following one, "Where Are Our Monsters Now, Where Are Our Friends?," are the treasure at the core of this album, the latter developing with an almost Canterburyesque synthesizer line weaving back and forth. I say synthesizer, but the elements and method of constructing these tracks is far from obvious.
Here and there it may be possible to suggest some leftover vinyl crackle has been borrowed; this clang may be a spanner whacking a burned out car; that stretched, spiraling, sound‚Äîon "Spiral of Decline"‚Äîmight be a ball-bearing falling down a series of drainpipes; that could be a re-wired drum machine; or field recordings of a scrapyard documented on an old answering machine. Generally it is all rather enjoyably baffling and quite a progression.
Watching Dead Empires In Decay resembles a concept album wherein warring factions find themselves survivors of a devastating incident, after which taking sides matters less than just getting by in a landscape of architectural ruin, with pissed-in elevators, downed power lines and stench-filled underground tunnels. P.D.James‚Äô The Children of Men came to my mind, among other narratives. It is an unexpected and excellent development of The Stranger‚Äôs sound. However, a protagonist residing in Watching Dead Empires In Decay would probably welcome a break among the traces of unpleasant memories and the harsh yet comfortingly unchanging terrain of Bleaklow.
*Hopefully he resurrects the brilliantly lascivious character of The Colonel to update another unhealthy dose of his highly salacious ode "Cup, my balls" in time for the 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament in Brazil.