Jesus died for our sins, and I listened to a six-and-a-half hour ambient concept album that seeks to replicate the effects of dementia - for your morbid curiosity (or maybe just my own).
English experimental music artist Leyland James Kirby’s mammoth album Everywhere At The End Of Time has become something of an internet phenomenon in recent months, amassing over 5 million views on YouTube, which is an awful lot for an ambient album that runs the same length of time as a flight from Dublin to the Middle East. While the final section of the album was released last year, the album went semi-viral on TikTok in September of this year as part of a challenge to listen to the whole thing, which has been called ‘the most terrifying album ever made’, a title that is in no way hyperbolic, but also does something of a disservice to Kirby’s work.
So why is this ambient album traumatizing so many TikTok teenagers, and why is it so bloody long? Kirby’s album, under the moniker ‘The Caretaker’, is an audio depiction of the worsening effects of dementia on an individual’s brain, the six stages of the album coinciding with the stages of onset dementia caused by diseases like Alzheimer’s. The album uses music and sound as a way of depicting the brutal erasure of memory and subjectivity: the first stage of the album presents us with the music (memories), and the following stages proceed to dismantle the music to the point where it is completely unrecognizable by the end of the album, attempting to make the listener feel as if they are experiencing the stages of dementia. By no means the most cheery album in the world.
Upon reading how impactful the experience of the album was on so many people - many claiming that it ‘changed’ or ‘broke’ them, some even suffering panic attacks and uncontrollable bouts of crying – I decided, for whatever masochistic reason, that I was going to have to face into the abyss and listen to the thing myself. The opportunity came on Sunday, 15th November, my day off (because what better way to spend your day off work than to listen to a six-and-a-half hour concept album about dementia). Needless to say, the abyss looked back and I was well and truly humbled, becoming another member of the thousand-yard star existential crisis listeners club, the only club anyone can seem to get into these days.
While Everywhere At The End Of Time is undoubtedly an extremely dark listening experience, it is important to stress that the album was not created with the intent to simply shock and terrify.
The album has recently become almost something of a creepypasta in its TikTok notoriety, twisted youngsters fascinated by the terrifying concept – some even spreading the rumour that the album causes the listener to actually develop dementia (I hope I don’t have to explain to the reader of this article that this is medically impossible) – it has been shared around the internet as a kind of a spooky novelty, which takes away from the fact that this album is a very personal, and genuinely emotional artistic depiction of a very serious, and very real condition of the brain.
In response to the album becoming a viral challenge, Kirby wrote: ‘I think that anything that can enable awareness, open a discussion and give people some empathy with people and family members suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia especially among the young is a good thing’.
Kirby, whose grandfather suffered a form a dementia following a series of strokes, also stated that he had read many academic studies, case studies and books on the illness that have informed how he approached making the music for The Caretaker project.
As I became a bit more informed of the artist’s intentions and his commitment to creating this incredibly morbid album, I decided that I would have to approach it with the respect that it deserved and not just the result of some twisted bastard one day thinking to himself: ‘How can I make the most unpleasant album of all time?’ I should state, however, that I would strongly urge against anyone who isn’t in the best frame of mind right now to listen to this thing, particularly anyone who suffers from anxiety or dissociative tendencies.
This album is an emotionally and psychologically taxing experience - do not put yourself through it if you think it would aggravate any mental health problems that you may currently be dealing with. I am fortunate enough to be in relatively good mental health right now, and daft enough to listen to this album during lockdown.
I had two major dilemmas in approaching Everywhere At The End Of Time: how exactly should I listen to this album considering its monstrous runtime, and how would I go about writing this article. Kirby’s behemoth is longer than any film I’d ever seen, never mind albums I’ve listened to, and film - as a medium that uses both visuals and audio – is generally more immersive, and therefore much easier to just sit and experience for a couple of hours.
In the past I‘ve listened to albums that run on the longer side in sections to deal with this problem; however, the good sadistic folk of niche subreddits and the original TikTok challenge were adamant that the album had to be listened to in all its glory in a single sitting, otherwise the trauma wouldn’t be as spicy.
Keen to experience the album in full, and slightly doubting the tales of abject horror from the internet music nerds and the TikTokers, I decided to listen to all six and a half hours in one go (bar a half hour break to eat some lunch, mindful not to traumatize myself on a an empty stomach), earphones in on full volume. This may prove itself to be one of my more formative decisions of this second lockdown. In terms of how to write the article – I had seen people document their live listening reactions on video, and I thought the closest thing I could get to this in written form would be to write notes at certain points in the album and include them as part of the article as a kind of listening log.
The Caretaker is a project that Kirby had been working on for 20 years, and his six-part behemoth Everywhere At The End Of Time can be seen as the artist’s magnum opus; it most fully explores the ideas of memory, nostalgia, decay and mental illness that define the project. Kirby worked on EATEOT for three years; the first section in the series released in 2016, he proceeded to release each section after a six-month period, the final section released in 2019, which marked the end of The Caretaker project for Kirby.
I was first introduced to The Caretaker’s music through a link to his 2011 album An Empty Bliss Beyond This World on a thread in a Facebook music group; enticed by the enigmatic title and its strange cover art (an illustration of a large rock boulder smoking a cigarette), I gave it a brief listen. I found the comments under the video seeking to describe the music to be just as interesting as the music itself: ‘feels like going back to your childhood home only to realize everyone’s gone and you’re alone’, ‘This is the soundtrack for a piece of fruit decomposing’, ‘When you try to remember Obama’s last name’.
The Caretaker project uses samples of old ballroom dance records from the 1920s and 1930s that Kirby picked up in record shops, digitalized and edited to distort the sounds of these records into haunting soundscapes. The idea for The Caretaker project (as well as the name) came to Kirby through Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, in particular the ballroom scenes, where the increasingly insane Jack Torrance stumbles around the grand hallways of the Overlook Hotel while ghostly ballroom music can be heard, before he enters the grand hall and discovers – whether real or fantasized – a fancy 1920s ballroom party taking place in the empty hotel.
The music can be heard in the film in several scenes, muffled through the walls of the hotel; it is playing in another room, in another time and another place – yet it’s still there, a distant memory imprinted within the walls and hallways of the hotel. These scenes in Kubrick’s horror masterpiece offer a valuable insight into The Caretaker’s music: the distorted old music that you hear is the music of memory, imprinted in the mind just as the ballroom music is imprinted in the structure of The Overlook Hotel.
EATEOT documents the gradual decay of this imprint, the decay of memory - those snippets of experience and sensation that formulate our ideas of who we are, what we think, what we feel and what we remember. Once these snippets are gone, what are we left with?
Memory and music go hand-in-hand, something that is well documented in just about everyone’s own personal experience as well as in modern neuroscience. Certain songs remind us of a time and place in our lives, they have a power to transport us to a memory that can stop us in our tracks and completely dislocate us from the present moment.
Have you ever tried to remember the order of a certain letter in the alphabet, and you had to recite it from the top in that little song that you first learnt it in? This isn’t because you’re an eejit and your mental age hasn’t progressed from when you learnt your ABC’s – music and memory are intrinsically linked.
If you learn something in song, that piece of music will forever be stuck in your brain as a companion of the memory. Thousands of years ago, epic stories like Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey were passed down verbally using poetic devices. Before the narratives could be written down, they were chanted or sung. Oral tradition depended on the stimulating power that music has on the hippocampus and the frontal cortex, the two large areas in the brain associated with memory.
In recent years, studies have shown that while diseases like Alzheimer’s inflict a lot of damage to these areas of the brain, musical memory seems to be partially independent of other memory systems, and so musical memory may be partially preserved. This has led to more widespread use of musical therapy to treat patients with dementia, and it has proven to have a great affect in improving mood and cognitive function.
It is exactly this link between music and memory that The Caretaker project seeks to explore – music as the last remaining reminders of our lives as we grew old and our minds start to fail us. EATEOT attempts to replicate the fading of those final reminders; it presents us with the nostalgic joy of musical memory and then proceeds to destroy it over the course of six and a half hours, until nothing remains. Here is my experience listening to the album:
Description on Youtube video reads:
‘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.’
-Track titles like: ‘the loves of my entire life’ and‘things that are beautiful and transient’, but also, ‘we
don’t have many days’.
00:10:00 - 1930s/1940s ballroom music with some reverb and record cracks. Very slight distortion does make the music seem like a distant, yet fond memory. It’s actually kind of blissful, if not a little creepy. Definitely reminiscent of ballroom scene in The Shining, the music evokes a time and a place that is fogged by memory yet still present and almost within grasp. Slow tempo songs. The choice of ballroom music makes it easy to imagine myself as an elderly person today, or in recent times, thinking back to the music of my glory days. Makes me think what music would be used if someone made this 80 years from now. Calvin Harris – Bounce.
00:20:00 – so far so good, actually pretty pleasant. Feels like fond, intimate memories. Some of the tracks end very abruptly, made to show the transience of time? Blissful memories end quickly in life, and in recalling them later, we often snap back out of them.
‘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.’
-Track titles like ‘the way ahead feels lonely’ and ‘glimpses of hope in trying times’.
00:45:00 - The difference is immediately apparent, the music is more clouded in distortion and reverb, there are other weird elements going on – ambient drones, echoes. Tracks end very abruptly. The first stage can be categorized by a sense of bliss, and a slight sense that something isn’t right. That sense is amplified in the second stage. Notes are drawn out longer, everything is a bit slower.
01:00:00 – the music is definitely more unsettling now, the instruments almost sound sad to be playing the music. The other elements are more pervasive/intrusive. Distorted drones etc. – there’s more going on than the old music.
1:00:06 - The cover art now makes perfect sense, it doesn’t just look like the music. The flowers are the memories, the vase is the mind – the container that holds them – it is decaying. There are four healthy looking (though beginning to lilt) flowers in it, but soon the container won’t be able to hold them any longer and they will fall. Overall things are still pretty blissful, though the mood is definitely a lot lower than the first stage. The sense of fondness with which these memories are being recalled is replaced a bit by difficulty. The music kind of sounds like lilting flowers.
‘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.’
-Track titles like: ‘An empty bliss beyond this world’, ‘Drifting time misplaced’, ‘hidden sea buried deep’.
01:27:00 - Recognise some bits of the music from the first stage, but they are now far more distorted. It’s like the memory is covered in a dark cloud. Some of the details of the music (memory) are obfuscated. Only the melody is clear, but even that feels very distant. Some short musical phrases are repeated over and over in instances; only a very brief glimpse of the memory survives.
01:40:00 - One thing worth noting is the tremendous sense of loneliness in the music. It sounds like you’re on the edge of an empty world, and it’s played only for you. The music in the Shining had this exact same effect.
02:00:00 - It all sounds very fractured and fragmented, the music feels like pieces rather than a whole. Memories beginning to collapse, leaving behind shards. Sounds are muffled, if the music sounded like it was submerged underwater in the last two phases, it now sounds like it’s submerged under oil. A lot more ambient, much more like a sparse soundscape where the dusty old ballroom music is another one of the features rather than the forefront music.
‘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.’
- Three of the four tracks are just named ‘Stage 4 Post Awareness Confusions’, and one (the third) is ‘Temporary Bliss State’.
2:15:00 - The music is much much more unsettling at this point. Genuinely disturbing. Different dark ambient sounds with snippets of the ballroom music, very faintly familiar. I look at the time bar on the youtube video and realize I’m not even halfway through. Oh jeepers.
2:23:00 – the snippets of familiar music are extremely infrequent; a few could be heard at the beginning of the stage. Now it’s just wading through these very chaotic noises, that don’t make any sense. At this stage I just want to go back and hear something that sounds like music. It is very alienating and isolating. Loud distorted ambient drones that are completely alien. At times it feels like I can hear a distant and very faint piano note tinkling. Part of the confusion is trying to make out the sounds amidst the murk.
2:39:00 - Confusion and horror are pretty apt descriptors for this stage. Good man Kirby. Noisy ambient drones, chaotic fragments of notes that seem to appear out of nowhere, signifying nothing in particular. Sounds jump in and out in the sonic jumble.
3:00:00 – The ‘Temporary Bliss State’ has indeed brought some bliss in this pretty unpleasant stage; there are light shimmering piano notes that fade in and out or end and come back in abruptly. Everything is still very hazy and distorted, but it’s almost like an acceptance of the confusion. A gentle confusion. This bliss is accompanied by a strong sense of melancholia, that I think I mostly felt from the context of the album’s concept. This is the dementia sufferer’s break from the confusion of the failing mind, where they feel a short stint of calm, no longer plagued by the act of forgetting but rather lulled into the sparse and formless recesses of the mind; completely separate from the world around them and the world that preceded them – their own life – but at peace for a short moment.
3:15:00 – back into the ‘post awareness confusion’ and now halfway through the album. Not as terrifying as the two tracks that preceded the ‘bliss’. The bliss carries on but is now much sadder in tone. All very dreary, like a slow and dull pain. As I get to the halfway point it is almost impossible to remember the music from the first and second stages. Feel a wee bit mentally exhausted. Hopefully will be able to work tomorrow. Was this a good idea? Ah well, I’m in too deep. This stage kind of sounds like watching someone quickly flicking through channels on an old TV with a broken aerial. Most of the channels are just static and white noise, with the odd channel here and there playing some semblance of a recognized picture, and a recognized sound, beneath the layers of static. But the channels flick on too quickly to make sense of the brief snippet of familiarity - you want to go back to the channel that had that wee bit of signal, but you’re not holding the remote.
‘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.’
-First two tracks titled: ‘Stage 5 Advanced plaque entanglements’, third is ‘Stage 5 Synapse retrogenesis’, fourth is ‘Stage 5 Sudden time regression into isolation’.
3:40:00 - The transition from 4 to 5 was probably the most affecting part so far. The slow and labored end of stage 4 immediately cut to the noisy, extremely distorted stage 5 and actually made me jump a little. Jumble of millisecond noises, even what sounds a little like snippets of voices. Lots of static.
3:52:00 - Parts of this stage sound like a storm. A big wind blowing in a wide-open space, with no tangible forms or objects that provide shelter. The odd fragment of an instrument sound can be heard occasionally.
4:10:00 – definitely becoming more impacted by the album now. I read a lot of people saying that these last two stages fuck you up the most – so far they’re right. It’s mostly just a blare of noise, the most distorted of the jumble to this point. I heard one of the ballroom music noises for about a second and literally shuddered when it disappeared back into the confusion.
4:25:00 – ‘synapse retrogenesis’ is a bit calmer, more ambience as opposed to noise. Less of a jumble of sounds going on, more like waves of this one very big calming, but scary noise, if that makes any sense.
4:30:00 – Okay so, any sense of calm was just destroyed. Lots of disorientating things going on now. Pretty hard to describe. 2 hours to go.
4:45:00 – Terror and confusion galore. Some very abstract rendering of noise. Actually getting a bit difficult to write these notes.
‘Post-Awareness Stage 6 is without description.’ oh ballix.
- Track titles are: ‘Stage 6 A confusion so thick you forget forgetting’, ‘Stage 6 A brutal bliss beyond this empty defeat’, ‘Stage 6 Long decline is over’.
5:15:00 - The sixth and final stage is the sparsest by far, it’s like a huge cave. Every sound is loud but muffled, and reverberates these deep echoes. The Super Hans quote, ‘the longer the note, the more dread’, comes to mind. This stage is pretty harrowing. So far it’s not chaotic at all, just terrifying in how lifeless and barren it is. It’s so hard to believe that 5 hours ago I was listening to music. Look out my window and just on cue, the sun is starting to set. Happy days.
5:30:00 - Really hard to describe this stage, can only really describe it by what it’s not in comparison to the other stages. Just vast nothingness. If you were to listen to this album and just skip to this part it wouldn’t be at all impactful, I don’t think. It’s the gradual breakdown into nothingness that is so harrowing.
5:40:00 - Becoming more noisy, sounds like a storm again, but a very deep and heavy storm. I feel like I can hear bits of the familiar music, really really faintly beneath everything else, but I don’t even know if I’m just wanting to hear it and my mind’s playing tricks on me.
6:05:00 - Heard piano notes loud but they immediately echoed out into this long piercing drone. Like the mind finally grabbing onto the grain of a memory before it slips away. I can’t even remember the music no matter how hard I try, the glimpses of it just confuse you further. I can remember the first note from a song in Stage 1 and nothing more.
6:24:00 – the drones and the echoes stop, it sounds like a record is put on, and distant holy organ music – the first piece of recognizable music since hours ago - plays, with a choir singing. I don’t think any piece of art of any kind has made me feel the way this has in this moment. Very devastating.
6:30:31 - Album finished. Feeling a light to decent existential crisis on this thing. Gonna have to go for a walk and listen to the Bee Gees.
So there you have it. While I went into this album with a fair amount of skepticism, I came out feeling like I had just discovered some horrific truth and would never view the world in the same way. It has now been a week since I listened to the album in full – I won’t say that it has ‘changed’ me, but I have been thinking about it a lot since.
I can say with absolute certainty that no piece of music, film or literature had the effect on me that EATEOT did. Has it altered my worldview forever and broken me beyond repair? In short: no, but it was an experience that I will never forget, and it did leave me a little unresponsive for a few days.
Above all I think it has reminded me of the importance of art that illuminates the darker parts of human experience – art that is often dubbed ‘depressing’ or ‘miserable’. I believe that any piece of art that makes you feel anything at all - is a great piece of art, and depressing art is no exception to that, but I did at times think: ‘did this album really need to be made? What is the purpose of creating something so devastating?’ But this album wasn’t made to be depressing; it was made as a brutally honest artistic depiction of a brutal part of life, and honesty should be the most important aspect of any piece of art that seeks to take on a topic as dark as dementia.
In that respect, to listen to this album was a pleasure and a privilege: it’s certainly a tough six and a half hours, but that is, of course, nothing compared to the pain that Alzheimer’s inflicts on both those who suffer from it and those who suffer from seeing it inflicted on a loved one. As Kirby himself said, if this album manages to create empathy amongst young people for such a horrible disease that will effect many of us in one way or another, then the album was worth making – and for me, it was worth listening to.
But I won’t be listening again any time soon.
Wrtten by Lochlann de Brún .