The sample that took the internet by storm: a review of Everywhere at the End of Time
Updated: Nov 18, 2021
Everywhere at the End of Time is an atmospheric composition by The Caretaker, who makes use of sampling and production techniques to create ominous and dark-sounding tracks. Its connotations bring forth an aspect of deterioration and withering, characteristic of a terrifying, but forgotten disease: dementia.
Music is an integral part of human life and society. We see it being used everywhere, from things mundane as entertainment to society-governing advertising and propaganda. Within entertainment, music has also manifested itself in the form of memes: one of, if not the most popular medium of expression in the 21st century. However, the music we hear in memes may pack more meaning than we think.
Leyland James Kirby, artistically known as The Caretaker, is an English musician and producer who specializes in ambient music. Although he officially started his career in 1996, he only really gained popularity with the resurgence of the trollface memes in 2020, which featured themes like mental instability. The Caretaker’s music, coincidentally, featured similar ideas, which lead the memes to be used in tandem with his most famous composition: Everywhere at the End of Time, a six-hour long atmospheric production, released in 2016.
For context, the resurgence of trollface memes in 2020 differed greatly from their original use in the late 2000s. While the latter were much much more good-spirited and humorous, the former are now characterized as “schizoposting”, a term which refers to memes that deal with themes of dementia, schizophrenia, and general mental instability (example below).
So what exactly led Kirby’s composition to blow up so fast? For the most part, it was the use of the piece’s first movement: step A1. It is a highly processed version of Al Bowlly’s “Heartaches”, a popular ballroom pop song from the 1930s. It is used almost exclusively in these memes because the slowed down melody provides a sense of melancholy, but at the same time nostalgia due to the production techniques used. Upon hearing it and its impact, listers and enthusiasts would naturally want to find out where the track came from, leading them to Everywhere at the End of Time.
Now that we know about the pretext of this composition, it’s time to look at the thing itself. Everywhere at the End of Time is an ambient composition that addresses the horrors of dementia. In an interview with Telekom Electronic Beats, he says: “I tried to approach the whole idea of using this in a creative way with great respect for the condition itself, and for those who suffer from it, and also for those who care for loved ones.” The composition is divided into six parts, each part lasting about an hour. The parts themselves are named Stages 1 through 6, each representing a stage of dementia, but for briefness sake we will only look at the most crucial ones. The samples, usually taken from early-20th century ballroom pop recordings, used for each stage become progressively more over-processed and distorted, which symbolizes the mental deterioration that occurs as the disease develops. Each stage has lettered and numbered subdivisions which will be referred to as “steps”.
“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 quote above (and the five others you will encounter at the beginning of each stage) is taken from vvmtest’s full upload of the composition on YouTube. This stage has a total of 12 tracks, each lasting about 3 to 4 minutes. It is the introductory track, however, that takes the spotlight. “Heartaches”, as previously mentioned, is a ballroom pop song from the 1930s whose arrangement consists of a brass duet, a vocalist-acoustic guitarist (Al Bowlly himself), and some percussion instruments. Despite the rather simplistic approach, what allows the piece to take on such a melancholic and evocative mood is its melody, which is enabled only through a deceptively complex chord progression (looking at a lead sheet for this actually blew my mind). Using conventions in tandem like modal interchange (changing between scales in a composition) and perfect cadences (going from the fifth degree of a scale to the first degree, a very commonly used resolution to chord progressions) allows the building of an utterly addicting tune. You can listen to it yourself here.
What Leyland does with this track is equally mindblowing. Expanding upon the track’s vintage quality, he decides to boost the vinyl crackle and slow down the original tempo, which ultimately pitch-shifts the whole composition by five semitones. The track loses a lot of its percussive elements, namely the once audible guitar strumming every up beat, leaving only the heart-wrenching melody of the trumpets and trombones. What’s more, he names the step (A1) “It’s just a burning memory”, the last five words of the first verse section of Heartaches. This ties in perfectly with the description we saw in the quote; in the first stage of dementia, the patient experiences the first signs of memory loss, but it all feels like a big daydream, a recollection of the old and great days. This latter fact is seen throughout the stage as a whole, and the sample is used recurrently throughout the record in order to demonstrate how far even one’s strongest memories can be completely ravaged by dementia.
Now, let’s address that beautiful painting I showed you at the beginning of this stage. It was composed by visual artist Ivan Seal specifically for Kirby’s project, as are all of the ones to be shown.
Whether you’re an art student or not, the focus of the image should strongly resemble a collection of papers, like a book or newspaper. We can tell based on the smoothness and blending of the brushstrokes, the color of the focus object, and its form (the edges of the object appear to be slightly torn or crinkled). But this is still an awfully vague depiction of an object. Which of the two is it; a newspaper, or a book? Is it even paper at all? While this doesn’t directly connect to the Stage 1 description, according to Dementia Care Central, Stage 2 (which corresponds to Stage 1 in the composition) is characterized as “very mild cognitive decline” and describes symptoms like forgetting names, but most importantly “misplacing familiar objects”. This aligns nicely with the focus of the painting; we know that it is a paper-like object of some sort, but we can’t bring ourselves to identify it specifically.
Stages 2 and 3
“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.”
“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.”
Stages 2 and 3 are to be looked at under the same lens because they are very similar. Unlike Stage 1, their descriptions are more easily relatable to the artworks. We see that the image to the left strongly resembles a flower pot, and is arguably more distinguishable and specific than figure 1. The point of interest for this image is the vase itself, nonetheless, as the flowers are clearly expressed. It can be deduced from the hatched or scumbled brush strokes and from its irregular form that the vase serves as a representation of some sort of movement that has been frozen. It even appears as if the two handles of the vase were a man and a woman dancing opposite to each other. The color scheme only adds to this: the prominent use of dull colors like grey indicates loss of some kind, which matches the description for the stage - “memories can be more long form with a little more deterioration in quality.” It’s also interesting to see the evolution from Stage 2’s cover to Stage 3’s cover. Due to the mainly green characteristic and chaotic brush stroke patterns and form of Stage 3’s image, it resembles, albeit not with as strong a sense as Stage 2, a tree. Since both images feature plants, this transition can be seen as a kind of evolution where the disease becomes more prominent from one stage to the other.
In terms of sound quality, the music from Stages 2 and 3 is relatively similar; they present a significant deterioration compared to the first stage. However, what differs between 2 and 3 is the use of production elements - mainly reverberation (reverb). Take, for example, step D3: Last moments of pure recall. This step may be seen as almost identical in its elements to any given piece of Stage 1; the only truly distinguishable musical elements are its melody and a sense of chord progression through the largely present bass notes. In terms of instrumentation, this step is extremely similar to the first step we talked about (It’s just a burning memory), likely because the artist sampled another song from the same time period, when there were similar recording practices and standards. This fits in nicely with the step’s name; its similarity to the first theme evokes a reminiscent feeling in the listener.
Stage 3’s description states that the dominant theme is confusion, and this is perfectly portrayed by Leyland in step E1 - “Back there Benjamin”. While there is little difference from the sound deterioration in Stage 2, there is a clear use of reverb in order to involve the element of confusion. In this step, the notes from the trombones overlap into each other, obstructing the sense of defined rhythm. The same occurs with the voices and strings from the track; their dissonant melodies in combination with the reverb prompts constant changes in dynamics, which further enforces an overwhelming sense of confusion. The track also cuts short before another, more distorted and reverberated iteration of step A1 is played: “the finest moments have been remembered”.
“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.”
Stage 4 is where things take a major turn. It’s as if you were swimming in the ocean and were caught and swept away by a cold and unforgiving current. From here on, there are less steps in each stage, but the themes are longer and more monotone, and very few elements of the original sample can be made out.
Before I begin to talk about the music for this stage, I just want to make a quick and significant connection between the artwork and the description. Similarly to Stage 3, figure 3 makes use of murky colors (according to Mr. Concagh) a spatula to create a layered effect on the focus, which in turn makes it less recognizable. However, its general form should remind you of this painting right here:
We can tell based on the similarity of the veil projecting from the figure’s head, and by the positioning of the woman in the frame. However, there is a complete obstruction of the facial features, which is complemented by the aforementioned layering by spatula. This, in combination with the old and withered quality of the colors used indicates that there has been a distancing between the patient and a given familiar figure. The fact that figure 3 looks so similar to figure 4, yet at the same time its most recognizable elements (like the earring itself) have been omitted brings about a certain frustration; “Post-Awareness Stage 4 is where serenity and the ability to recall singular memories gives way to confusions and horror.” In addition, Dementia Care Central states one of the symptoms of this stage as “Socialization problems: withdraw from friends or family”. Figure 3 matches this; there is a withdrawal from familiar figures because they are not entirely recognizable.
This stage is musically characterized by distorted ambience and feedback. Samples have been completely bent out of their original shape, but they are not broken. Stage 4 only has 4 steps.
Step G1, H1, and J1 - Stage 4 Post Awareness Confusions
This is like a slap to the face compared to the mellow and somewhat pleasant atmospheric step F8 from Stage 3: Mournful camaraderie. Remember my ocean analogy from earlier on? Yeah, this stage is you fighting against a turbulent ocean in a desperate attempt to maintain your head out of the water, and you’re barely making it. The only thing reminiscent of the previous stages is the vinyl crackling. Only a few musical elements are discernible: the occasional reverberated trumpet and snippets of stringed instruments try to breach the ever present wall of static and sound that dominate the listener’s ears. Only sometimes are musical phrases audible, and they very quickly succumb to the fierce wind-like quality of white noise. There is no sense of progression, since every attempt by the instruments to be heard is suffocated by the overwhelming ambience. What this makes the listener feel is exactly one of the key words of the description: horror. Our trusty source, Dementia Care Central, also provides some interesting connections to this stage. It describes one of the symptoms as “difficulty concentrating”, which matches the structure of the stage due to its fractured and incoherent patterns.
Step I1 - Temporary Bliss State
You might’ve noticed that I skipped step I1 in the previous paragraph, and the reason should be quite obvious: its name. Interestingly, the name has nothing to do with the description or any of the symptoms described by Dementia Care Central. However, there is enough justification to suggest that the name is actually completely relevant to the theme. This step serves two purposes in the composition. The first is functional in the sense that it provides the listener with a break from the near-45-minute-long aural abuse which was steps G1 and H1. The second is obviously and most importantly symbolic: here, the patient reaches a state of disarray which counterintuitively serves as an emotional state of bliss. Production-wise, this is achieved by removing much of the low-register frequencies, which gives space for longer parts of sample melodies to shine through… briefly. The deterioration of the sound becomes more apparent when this happens because most of it is located around the high registers. Despite this, the small themes and melodies are still incoherent. It’s as if the patient were placed under some sort of illusion where they are beginning to get detached from the real world.
Stage 5 and 6
“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.”
“Post-Awareness Stage 6 is without description.”
Need I say any more? While Stage 5 makes similar use of production techniques to Stage 4, Stage 6 effectively provides a closure to the arduous progression of the composition. However, it does not end in the same fashion as the stages that led to it. Stage 6 starts out as a low, almost mechanical hum that stretches through two steps: O1 - “Stage 6 A confusion so thick you forget forgetting” - and P1 - “Stage 6 A brutal bliss beyond this empty defeat” (just look at these names and tell me they don’t sound horrifying!). There are virtually no recognizable samples in these two steps. While they may seem unforgiving, they pave the way for the final two: Q1 - “Stage 6 Long decline is over” - and R1 - “Stage 6 Place in the World fades away”. In these latter stages, there is some significant restoration of musical notes and chords, although they are not reminiscent of any themes encountered in the previous stages. They seem distant because the low and high end are cut off from the samples, which creates a lo-fi quality to chords, and because they are reverberated. More importantly, however, is that there is no sense of tempo. According to Dementia Care Central, there is a loss of time perception towards the last stages. Ultimately, this is the first sense of relief that we feel since the mid-end of Stage 3, but unfortunately it is at the cost of memories, identity, and mental degradation.
I’ll leave these two pieces of art for you to admire and interpret with reference to the respective stage descriptions ;)
A word on dementia and mental illness
Dementia is not a disease, but rather a group of diseases. It characterizes many symptoms such as memory loss and the obstruction of social and cognitive abilities. Examples of this condition include, more famously, Alzheimer’s disease.
Dementia in its various forms can be hard to recognize. It often reaches its further stages without notice because it is hard to pinpoint in its early stages, and even if it is, it’s still an especially tricky condition with few forms of treatment to ease it. While dementia usually manifests its detrimental stages at the ages of 65 and above, it can begin as early as age 30 as a result of brain damage. This damage, in turn, causes a lack of communication and interaction between brain cells, which gives rise to not only cognitive, but motor impairments as well. Figure 6 is a comparison between a normal brain and a brain affected by dementia:
Dementia is a serious disease. You can demonstrate support in its research by donating to prominent facilities like the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Brain Foundation, and many others. Alternatively, make sure to treat the elderly in your community with respect, because you never know what they might be going through.
References and further reading
On dementia and Alzheimer’s
About the composition
Troll face: https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/trollface
Chords for Heartaches: https://www.hooktheory.com/theorytab/view/al-bowlly/heartaches
Lyrics for Heartaches: https://genius.com/Al-bowlly-heartaches-lyrics
Everywhere at the end of time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJWksPWDKOc
For the interview with The Caretaker: https://www.electronicbeats.net/the-caretaker-unsound-leyland-james-kirby/