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Birchville Cat Motel - Gunpowder Temple Of Heaven

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Artist: Birchville Cat Motel

Album: Gunpowder Temple Of Heaven

Label: Pica Disk

Review date: May. 21, 2008

Albums – good albums, that is – used to be monuments. They used to carve out a piece of space-time that was worth visiting and re-visiting, a near-holy place where you could commune with a presence that felt bigger than you. Nowadays, calling any album a monument is a stretch. It’s almost as if the tide has turned against such grandiose gestures, irony leveling even the loftiest of intentions. Just check the unceasing torrent of releases on every medium imaginable from countless obscure labels: keeping discographies becomes a fool’s errand and frustrates all but the most dedicated collectors. It’s all process over product, the getting-there trumping the destination.

So, when thinking of the current experimental drone/noise underground, historical perspective is not the first term that springs to mind. At times it seems like many of these artists intentionally obfuscate straightforward chronology and mock the idea of a perfect final product. Ruptured timelines, ideas in the raw, ad hoc invention – these are their materiel and M.O. Keep up if you can.

Gunpowder Temple of Heaven, in name and effect, is a monument, intentionally and unintentionally. It’s monumental in the sense that it is titanic and overwhelming, a 40-minute superstructure of sound that can’t readily be ignored. Unintentionally, it acknowledges on one level how ephemeral and elusive experimental music has gotten, and on another, how scattered and fragmented our culture in general feels. No amount of inspiring, hope-laden speeches, it seems, can get everyone under one roof these days.

This acknowledgement comes in the form of Bruce Russell’s wide-ranging liner notes and a three-page discography of Campbell Kneale’s recorded output (more than 90 releases over the past decade or so). Russell puts the music into the context of church music, psycho-acoustics and temple-building, and suggests affinities with Oliver Messiaen, Iannis Xenakis and Le Courbusier. This is more (well-founded) historical foundation, documentation and narrative than most records in the drone/noise underground ever get.

The overarching texture is itself a grand one, and Russell states the conclusion that anyone who hears this record, even before they read his notes, will reach: the main body of this piece sounds like a massive church organ, one with all the keys depressed and droning onwards into some strange secular infinity. Layer upon layer of held tones in the mid-to-high frequency range coalesce, merge, break up and ultimately reform into mammoth close harmonies, half-melodies and abstract themes.

What holds this mass together is the deep design with which Kneale imbues the piece. Every detail points at the whole, from the plaintive, ultra-high harmonics to the distant bass bombs that appear two-thirds in. He manages to do what all great monuments should do: evoke grandeur and awe, melancholy and solitude of a theological depth. It evokes these, and in so doing, builds from them a shelter.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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