The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Album Of The Week

Songs Of Incexprence: Kemper Norton's Brunton Calciner
Bernie Brooks , September 5th, 2019 08:44

Kemper Norton’s latest LP, brunton calciner, is a transfixing ode to transformative processes told through local history, customs, and folklore, says Bernie Brooks

In 1838, a 61-year-old Scotsman called William Brunton was ruined when the Neath brewery he'd partnered in failed. The brewery, it seems, was a bit of a left-turn for Brunton, who'd spent the bulk of his life as an engineer and inventor, working primarily in foundries: the Soho Foundry, the Butterly Works, the Eagle Foundry. He'd made his mark in the early days of steam navigation, outfitting the Sir Francis Drake, among other things. And in 1815, a different kind of mark, when a second, larger version of his Mechanical Traveller – a steam engine with legs, otherwise known as the Steam Horse – exploded during a public demonstration, killing at least 13. It was the first railway disaster.

Still, Brunton's most indelible signature would be writ upon the landscape itself. The monumental calciners that bear his name dot Cornwall and Devon, once the world's foremost producers of arsenic. Long since decommissioned, the structures appear ancient and unmovable and strangely permanent in the way that ruins do, as if they have always existed. In their heyday, through metallurgical processes, they separated salable arsenic from the byproducts of tin production, transforming potential waste into a notorious agent of change through extreme heat. How fitting, then, that these enormous ovens would lend their name to Kemper Norton's latest long-player, brunton calciner, an album devoted to intense transformative processes both physical and psychological.

To that end, brunton calciner's tone is immediately distinct from Norton's last LP, 2017's Hungan, which was a chillier, windblown affair redolant of sea air and salt water. Appropriately so, as that record was centred around the legend of "Cruel Coppinger", his wife Dinah Hamlyn, and their only child. Coppinger was a massive, violent Dane said to have washed up on the Cornish coast, eventually leading a terrible band of "Free Traders". (His son, incidentally, was allegedly born deaf, mute, and soulless thanks to the murderous pursuits of dear, ol' dad.) Norton's latest, by comparison, often radiates an almost industrial heat, as if the listener is at the heart of a chemical reaction or far too close to a blast furnace.

brunton calciner is dominated by two triptychs, presented non-consecutively, around which the rest of the record is arranged. The first to emerge is comprised of 'incence', 'exprence', and 'incexprence'. Based on a reading of William Blake's Songs Of Innocence And Experience by Nicol Williamson, the compositions become increasingly untethered as they progress from one to the other. 

The chopped vocal samples and beats of 'incence' flirt with dance music until about 2:15, when everything collapses into mechanized clangour before dissolving into an ethereal drone, upon which a series of pops builds toward a sort of crescendo. 'exprence' is short and comparatively sedate and nearly beatless, save for the occasional steam hiss that punctuates its echoing vox and what could be layers of organ. 'incexprence', clocking in at over ten minutes, is a buzzing monolith, easily the album's most intense passage. Perhaps these three tracks chart a path toward a hard-earned kind of enlightenment or understanding, serving as a sort of counterpoint to men like Brunton and (as Blake would put it in the poem that would eventually be known as the hymn 'Jerusalem') their "dark Satanic Mills".

The second of these trilogies – 'halan 1', 'halan 2', and 'halan 3' – in some ways mirrors the progression of the first, as it too builds to a lengthy conclusion. But where 'incexprence' feels not unlike a mechanical scouring, 'halan 3' digs its roots deep into the firmament while its leaves touch the heavens. It sounds free and new.

The 'halan' tracks are based upon an anonymous harp recording of 'The Helston Furry Dance'. Today's dance, performed yearly in Helston, Cornwall, as a part of Flora Day, is an educated guess at the original practice, revived after the tradition had been lost. While reimagined, the spirit of the festival, celebrated on St Michael's feast day, nevertheless remains unchanged. Honouring the transition from winter to spring, it marks yet another transformation. The dancers wear lilies of the valley, a symbol of purity, luck, and happiness that also happens to be highly toxic. Used both as a poison and medicinally, the flower itself is a catalyst.

'Rn86', sandwiched between 'incexprence' and 'halan 3' is also related to saintly feasts and goings on. A disembodied voice urges parents to protect their children from the foul giant Bolster, who, so the legend goes, terrorised Cornwall until St Agnes tricked him into bleeding himself out into the sea. Taken during the village of St Agnes's annual Bolster Day celebration – "It's a fun family day out," says Norton – the sample is paired with a rising martial drum beat. The sound of the village's May reenactment of Bolster's self-exsanguination acts as a bridge between the final chapters of the record's trilogies, setting the stage for the new growth embodied by 'halan 3'.

brunton calciner's only song in the traditional sense of the word is the album's centrepiece, a rearrangement of the traditional ‘Sweet Nightingale’ for "mine works and diamond cutter," according to Norton. The track begins with Norton's voice unadorned. As it proceeds, the sounds of industry build ominously, threatening to drown out the eerie but beautiful melody. The future of the couple's bucolic valley, the primroses, and the sweet nightingale seems to be in question. It reminds me of a passage early in Benjamin Myers's The Gallows Pole, in which King David Hartley has a run-in with a cotton company man threatening to bring industry to Cragg Vale:

"An he says cotton man cotton And I says what about the cotton and he seys merkingeyesayshun ... An he says mills and mill wheels an waterways and industry and great bildins like cathydrals ..."

King David responds to the inevitable with threats and profanity.

Kemper Norton has an uncanny knack for building thematically coherent and emotionally resonant bodies of work around obscure bits of local trivia like Brunton's calciners or folk songs and lore. He sees the uncommon in the common by recognising through-lines and connections others might miss. And while these stories may not always be explicitly spelled out in the music, they imbue it with an ineffable weight. It's his transformative process – his way of teasing the transcendent from the mundane, of rendering the intensely local universal. In his hands, our often overlooked cultural byproducts never go to waste. In his hands, they become something strange and wonderful. Their inherent value is made obvious for all to see.