Birchville Cat Motel
Gunpowder Temple of Heaven
Having served two furnace blasts of outrageous din with Hijokaidan and Incapacitants, Lasse Marhaug’s fresh imprint Pica Disk counter-balances the aggression with celestial, zen-inspired drone. The first such release was by Fe-Mail’s Hilde Sofe Tfajord, and now we have Gunpowder Temple of Heaven by New Zealand mainstay Birchville Cat Motel. BCM is Campbell Kneale, and not to be confused with the UK sound artist Neil Campbell of Astral Social Club and Smell & Quim (though the two have collaborated). Kneale has been squelching away down under for over a decade now, coming dangerously close to earning the lifetime achievement award for excellence in the field of noise and experimental drone. From my perspective, he stands among just a handful of other noise heavyweights (Marhaug, Drumm, Menche, Wiese, Akita, etc.) as one of a small cadre of truly virtuosic noise artists out there.
Kneale himself proclaims Gunpowder Temple of Heaven to be “without a doubt, the most beautiful thing I ever made,” and though I can’t attest to listening to all of his prodigious output (which is lovingly laid out here in the liner notes), I wouldn't doubt the claim. Gunpowder consists of a single 40-or-so-minute piece, commencing with a sputtering church organ that stumbles to coherence as higher-pitched organ drones work their way into the mix. As founding Dead C member Bruce Russell mentions in the liner notes, BCM’s work on Gunpowder is touching here on the compositions of Olivier Messiaen, the famous and influential French organist (Stockhausen, Boulez, and Xenakis were all under his tutelage). A church organist by trade and a devout Roman Catholic, religion was a major part of his work and his life. Not sure of which religious persuasion (if any), but Mr. Kneale's music is assuredly not godless.
BCM is also similar to Messiaen in execution. Messiaen had an innate ability for synesthesia, a phenomenon usually experienced under the effects of LSD, in which senses are crossed (seeing smells, hearing colors, etc.), and he did in fact “hear colors” upon encountering certain harmonies, mostly ones he wrote. BCM similarly composes in a painterly fashion, amalgamating sounds like a painter would hues, deciding which colors/sounds worked best together. And much like Messiaen's interests in ornithology, incorporating field recordings of bird songs into his recordings, BCM incorporates faint electronic chirpage to mesmerizing effect. Strongly visual, one could close your eyes to this CD and witness fractals dancing on the back of your eyelids, creating a psychedelic, fragmented reality that fucks with your sense of time.
In Campbell’s liner notes, he expounds upon the religious metaphors, drawing parallels from Gunpowder to the biblical story of Joshua and his motley crew of righteous trumpeters, who by the sheer sonic intensity of their group reveille, obliterated the Walls of Jericho. Like Messiaen, Kneale isn’t interested in depicting theological aspects such as sin and burning brimstone; instead, Gunpowder is a rumination on human redemption and divine love. If you’re looking for eternal damnation, you should look elsewhere. This is religious, shamanistic enlightenment.
1. Gunpowder Temple of Heaven