Ever since Chris Jeely of Accelera Deck released his new album Pop Polling, I’ve been keeping tabs on his Scarcelight label, especially since it has transcended the “vanity label” ghetto and started releasing albums by like-minded artists from around the world. Let’s face it…you can’t get much more “around the world” than New Zealand, where Campbell Kneale (the auteur behind Birchville Cat Motel) resides. Kneale is an experimental composer who asks his compatriots to send him field recordings, which he then manipulates to create tracks that would better be described as “ambient sound” than as actual music. The liner notes to Birchville Cat Motel’s latest Scarcelight release With Maples Ablaze read almost like a who’s who of the worldwide noise scene: Bruce Russell of the Dead C contributes “fire,” Argentina’s Reynols contribute “Reynols” (hah), and Englishman Simon Wickham-Smith adds singing and electronics. You should have guessed by now that Maples isn’t a CD you’ll be able to dance or sing along to. However, the arrangements of sound contained within its 70 minutes are guaranteed to unnerve you and put odd images in your head.
Take, for instance, the first track (none of the songs have titles). It begins with faint whiffs of white noise ricocheting across the stereo spectrum. A slide guitar ekes out a few notes. A host of scraping and grinding noises enter halfway through, and slowly obliterate every other element of the track. It gives me an image of an old man playing guitar on his front porch during a dust storm, while someone else tries in vain to operate rusty machinery in the back of the house. Well, it’s not like I could compare Birchville Cat Motel to another BAND… With Maples Ablaze peaks on the sixth track, in which a tape of children singing along to percussion is run backwards, forwards, at various speeds and through endless forms of distortion. Every once in a while, a sliver of high-pitched feedback cuts through. Over the course of nearly 11 minutes, the track begins to sound like a drum circle being invaded by aliens.
Otherwise, most of the other tracks can be summed up as drones augmented by incidental noises. Track three consists of high-pitched keyboard noises and the sound of papers burning (presumably Russell’s contribution to the album). Track five is a field recording of a train, atop which a hi-hat cymbal is opened and closed at random intervals. Track eight is a single-note drone juxtaposed with running water and a man mumbling wordlessly to himself. Track seven seems to be the one that makes the greatest use of traditional instruments. It coasts on layers of slowly swooping guitars that bring to mind Lovesliescrushing.
None of this may sound promising on paper to people who aren‘t noise aficionados, but Kneale arranges the various sounds he receives in such a way that they come alive when transmitted through your speakers. With Maples Ablaze was released in 2004, and from the minimal research I’ve done, I know that there have been at least two more albums released since. The guy works quickly, but if this record is any indication, he doesn’t half-step either!
Artist Website: http://www.cpsip.co.nz
Label Website: http://www.scarcelight.org