Birchville Cat Motel
Celebrate Psi Phenomenon
ampbell Kneale’s Birchville Cat Motel project has seen many a release, and—as befits a prolific solo artist unencumbered by a withering public gaze—not all of these releases have been great. Most contain scattered highlights that make them well worth owning, but a strident ten-minute patch often dampens the proceedings. Most albums would fold with a ten-minute drag, but Birchville Cat Motel has a way of making ten minutes seem like one, and one great minute seem like thirty.
Obviously I’m a sucker for Birchville Cat Motel. So what? That doesn’t make Chi Vampires any less incredible. Campbell Kneale stretches bagpipes to their absolute limits. He drags the Sunn O))) power sludge sound under the New Zealand sun, burning it to a tarred crisp. He amplifies the white noise of everyday modern life into an unrelenting dirge. What brings it all together? Oh, the drone, my friends. He makes music that pummels and uplifts, often at the same time.
What separates Chi Vampires from most of the works in Kneale’s oeuvre is its consistency. Not one minute of Chi Vampires feels excessive or indulgent. It hovers between accessibility and noise pain without falling into the traps of either. Though even an uninitiated listener weaned on a steady diet of indie pop can find something to like here, Birchville Cat Motel veterans will likely agree that Chi Vampires is among his best.
The heart and soul of the record is the 30-minute epic “Buckling Metal Snowflakes.” Describing this track in any detail feels hopeless and totally beside the point. Kneale’s sound is otherwordly and seemingly sourceless—without referents in music, literature, life, or whatever other little blurb we critics latch on to for lack of musical vocabulary. The track envelops the listener, pulling the mind over peaks of angelic sound and into gurgling swamps of fetid air and sour water. The track feels like the condensed history of something I cannot understand.
“Cold Herds Travel” doesn’t let up either. This one is a little shorter and more positive, driven to euphoric highs by the blaring church organ sounds composing the bulk of the track. Over the course of ten minutes, it repeats itself in all the right ways and eventually replaces thought as the language of life, if only for a little while.
While title track “Chi Vampires” doesn’t consume the time of “Buckling Metal Snowflakes,” it’s equally powerful. The song starts out soft and pastoral, pairing a plinking piano with a hovering high-pitched drone. A calm jaunt through a sunny field after the rigors of an emotionally involving album, right? So sorry—an absolutely punishing, stoner-metal drum blast drops in after two minutes followed by some of the most damaging, elongated riffs under the sun. Those familiar with Kneale’s Black-boned Angel project or the aforementioned Sunn O))) will know what I’m talkin’ ’bout here. But the plinking piano never quite surrenders to the metal assault. The song eschews the doom of the sludge metal gods for a more ambivalent and resonant emotional tone.
In short, Chi Vampires is great. Perhaps I should have said only this. Birchville Cat Motel has a way of making language feel utterly insignificant.