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Birchville Cat Motel - With Maples Ablaze

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Artist: Birchville Cat Motel

Album: With Maples Ablaze

Label: Scarcelight

Review date: Jun. 24, 2004

The collected works of Campbell Kneale, a.k.a. Birchville Cat Motel, stand proud and tall among the endless re-negotiations that constitute New Zealand’s underground. Kneale works as artist, motivator, and curator, and his label Celebrate/Psi/Phenomenon documents an increasingly widening crop of outsider art. As an outreach project, it’s mesh-work supportive in design and always a good conversation piece.

With Maples Ablaze feeds the C/Psi/P curatorial axis back into the host outfit. Kneale sent out a call for contributions during 2003, trying to enlist as many under-the-radar artists as possible into his Birchville Cat Motel Orchestra. (A moment of full disclosure: I was invited, but was too temporally challenged [i.e. flaky] to produce the goods.) While the Orchestra is constituted of artists from all round the world – Ralf Wehowsky, Tetuzi Akiyama, Neil Campbell, Jan Anderzen of Kemialliset Ystavat, and Reynols are among the contributors – most of the artists involved are from New Zealand. It has the feel of a community document, with Kneale as benevolent despot, marshalling the ranks and sculpting their contributions into signature Birchville sound.

What’s impressive about With Maples Ablaze is Kneale’s sensitivity to the materials provided. He approaches these disparate sources in a painterly way, forming great abstract shapes and waves of pointillist daubings. As with Kneale’s other recent, excellent disc, Beautiful Speck Triumph, there’s no desire to force any sound or structure into restrictive parameters. These most recent recordings from the Birchville Cat Motel axis have all hinted at a kind of transfiguration, a transference of energies, composition as slow and steady route to transcendence: thus With Maples Ablaze appears to charge through several phases, with the early part of the recording a slash-and-burn of nature play and muted disruption, before the middle of the record strikes a warbled, unsettled crescendo.

But the most affecting part of With Maples Ablaze is the final third. Slowing the record’s progress down to snail’s pace, Kneale unfolds a clutch of drones and liminal electronics, letting them slide through the recording equipment like rich, dense passages of mud. If Kneale is aiming at resolution, this is where he nails it. The sidereal presences that etch away at the very limits of audio – small scrabblings for toys and buzzing monitors, field recordings of farm animals and flickering birds – somehow reinforce the music’s elegance.

By Jon Dale

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