The six albums that make up the collective work, Everywhere At The End Of Time. Image source: Reddit
Prior to a listless online trawl, I had never heard of The Caretaker. Not too surprising, in retrospect, considering that my main forays into ambient and experimental music pretty much rest upon Sigur Rós’s discography and the angst exuded by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The latter, Incidentally, is like as not to leave you clutching yourself foetally and weeping for life to just go ahead and end, so that sets just about the right tone for what’s to come. That said, I get drawn in whenever the internet makes a promise, and so finding one that claimed a work titled Everywhere At The End Of Time would ‘break you’ was compelling. Then I saw the running time: just over six and a half hours. Damn. Must be one hell of a trip. So, I earmarked it, and then found myself one idle lockdown Sunday in the mood to test that oh-so-clickbaity ‘break you’ assertion. And it did. Break me, I mean. This is the story of how I listened to this six-hour work in one sitting, and came closer to existential dread than I think I will ever want to. Ever.
From the opening of ‘It’s just a burning memory’, the listener will fall into one of two camps: they will either recognise the dance-band and swing music as distinctly reminiscent of something they already know, or merely identify it as what it is literally: looped samples of 20’s-era swing music overlaid with heavy vinyl distortion. It’s no overstatement to say it has a haunting quality right from the off, and this is not simply by The Caretaker’s design, but also in its inspiration per se. Of these two camps, I fell into the former, which is to say that I recognised what I was hearing but not in a way that I could place where from or in what capacity. I knew instinctively that when I finally realised, I would kick myself, so it was only when I couldn’t bear the agony of unknowing for so much as another second that I allowed myself to Google it. Hey presto, and I could feel my sneaker tip striking my shins. Right at the top of The Caretaker’s Wikipedia page was the answer: “Initially, the project was inspired by the haunted ballroom scene in the 1980 film The Shining.”
Of course it is. Realising that this work is Kubrick-inspired is somehow so perfectly apt, so fitting, and The Caretaker knows this well. His career as an artist is not merely coloured by this key scene in The Shining — it is defined by it. Even the artist’s choice of name is itself an overt reference. In both film and book, Jack Torrance is the de facto caretaker of the Overlook hotel, and likewise the main antagonist (other than the Overlook itself, of course) is the ghost of Delbert Grady, who was himself once the caretaker before he murdered his family with an axe (or hatchet, as King originally wrote it in the novel). The Caretaker’s first three releases were even called the Haunted Ballroom Trilogy, and so his name, the titles of his original works and the inspiration behind the music itself are all derived from Kubrick’s 1980 masterwork. The artwork by Ivan Seal, admittedly, is not, but it does somehow evoke a sense of loss – a sense of something familiar but which is also forgotten – and this is a marker for the work’s one departure of theme. It is the reflection on mental degradation and illness that makes EATEOT (wow, that’s an ugly acronym, but let’s roll with it) not only curious and worth talking about, but special. Perhaps, even genius.
Poster promoting Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film, The Shining
Image source: atthemovies.uk
Of all possible topics in the sphere of the human experience, perhaps the least heartening is dementia. It is a kind of curse that in fairy tales would be reserved only for the wicked, but in reality could come for any of us. The very reason EATEOT is over six hours long is because it is attempting to simulate for the listener a meagre glimpse of what the progression of Alzheimer’s disease might feel like to live through, just as tens of millions are subject to every day.
So here follows my six-hour decent, not always idle, some moments in wearing my headphones washing dishes, making dinner, cleaning my bathroom –a domestic god waiting for all to unfold. The journey’s start felt, if anything, innocuous. There is a sense of longing for something not thought about in a long time. Something welcome, but indefinite. This stage, one of six, is described as “a beautiful daydream,” and aptly so. It is homely; an auditory embrace; the closed-eyed smile of a loved one sat deathly still in reminiscing. Stage two slips in around the 40-minute mark, the music here beginning to meander, to lose focus. There is a dreamlike quality that overlays every note and nuance. The sensation is of being in a room that is somehow getting imperceptibly bigger, however the light remains the same, which makes for the illusion that it is getting darker. Stage three: all sense of melody is becoming increasingly spliced, disjointed, or otherwise feels incredibly distant – audible but only across a vast, obsidian expanse. Music samples no longer intertwine but override each other. They start and stop in ways that the music is still there, identifiably still from music, but in which all semblance of harmony is slipping into haunted abandon. They return then with real energy and certainty until such a time as the notion of pattern and understanding freewheels again, like a cog too worn and ground. Fear is no longer an implied presence, but a constant companion. Stage four: the faintest semblance of music we once knew remains. There are snippets we know that we know, but cannot place. They leave, and what is left is not music at all – sounds without pattern, without meaning. Not all are unpleasant, it’s true, but devoid of harmony, we are lost. Stage five: adrift. There is a calm in not knowing anything of what this is anymore. There are flashes sometimes of something more, but even if we had ten times what we hear, we would not be able to know or place them. Some sounds come almost as though signals we cannot interpret, like the corrupted calls of gargantuan whales. The latter may be why there is a distinct feeling now that the expanse has silently flooded, and with all encircling pressure of it, we are underwater. Stage 6 – Distortion is most off all that is left. It is difficult to recall what swing music even sounds like. Try to play it your mind and it is too far gone. Every once in a while, something pleasing comes along in this vast, dark ocean – a few lonely notes, distinct in all the noise; but all too soon are gone. Then something harmonious again, dare we say hopeful, broken by even greater disarray and confusion. The next time, it takes even longer to find, because all is slowly getting ever further and further away from everything else, until the one predominant pattern is a single, evolving, undulating tone.
Leyland Kirby, The Caretaker
Image source: Fluid Radio
Few diseases rob one of oneself from the core and leave only a shell. Of the vessel that carried every bright-eyed joy, expressed every flash of doubt and shed every cathartic tear, Alzheimer’s makes a mockery. Every well-meaning person on this planet should hate it. It is the steady, unbidden dismantling of the self, and The Caretaker brings us in scalded hands a semblance of what it means to be dismantled. It is raw, otherworldly, and most terrifying of all, a reflection of experiences felt all over the world in every waking moment.
I have never known anyone personally who has suffered from dementia. I’ve been lucky in that respect, but I might not always be. The Caretaker has rightfully made me afraid. All is so carefully crafted, so specific to the task of identifying a concept of nostalgia and painstakingly stripping it from you that not only is EATEOT crippling to ingest, it is unique.
One of the great credits I can give this work is that in writing this article, reliving those truly cosmic depths, it really felt like opening up an old wound. Apart from the lightest touches of its first novelty, EATEOT is not fun. It is not a good time. It does not offer happiness. But in my mind that is an important part of why this piece of art is so talked about on YouTube, why it went viral on TikTok, and why fans collaborated with staggering effort to recreate the album from start to finish with alternate samples. What this work does is offer a viewpoint into a real horror of life that most will be lucky enough to never personally know. What EATEOT is, really, is an empathy machine switched to its darkest gear. In a world where music is designed mostly for us to try and relate, or be inspired by something that might allow us to feel less alone, how many other works are there that want you to feel even less than alone? Which is to ask, what if you were to lose not just everyone you know, but also yourself? I invite the reader to think of another work that does this, because I cannot. That, I think, is why so many of us can’t stop thinking about it.
By Ross Heard
By Ross Heard