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Kemper Norton
Oxland Cylinder Will Ainsley , March 4th, 2020 08:24

Kemper Norton evokes dark and liminal spaces on new album Oxland Cylinder finds Will Ainsley

Oxland Cylinders are relics. They were a part of an old arsenic-making process used in Devon and Cornwall that isn’t used anymore, and none remain intact. I suppose it’s fitting, then, that Kemper Norton’s new album Oxland Cylinder has a ghostly feel, quietly frayed and disintegrating like a dimly-recalled folk standard that’s echoed down the years.

The album feels quite tentative. I think this is because a balance is struck between the impassive and the fragile. On ‘trvnce rd’, the skeletal arrangement and ominous chord progressions are tempered by ethereal, swirling washes of synthesizer. That balance means Oxland Cylinder progresses cautiously and never quite kicks into gear, as exemplified by what is surely the oddest version of ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ to date. The stark reworking is a superb way of invoking the original spirit of the song. It juxtaposes dry, plaintive vocals and Merle Travis' revolutionary lyrics against a hushed bed of ambient noise, as if imitating the quiet hardship faced by the miners in the huge and uncompromising coal mines. Serving as a useful analogue for the Oxland Cylinder itself, the song is a jarring reminder of the human costs of industrial decline, be it in mining or arsenic-making.

For a record that would probably be deemed ambient music, it still feels fragmentary. The dub rhythms in ‘trvnce rd’ seem wary of themselves and content to skitter around the edges of the piece, peeking in and out of view. On ‘maypitt’ Norton intones strange phrases here and there, like the weird bloke at the afters nobody knows who won’t shut up about how “we’re all just strands”. Likewise, ‘tolguss’ has a ten-second coda that is entirely unrelated to what’s come before it and ‘gnbell’ is just 99 seconds long. These jarring moments are the closest Oxland Cylinder gets to being bold or intrusive.

The more disjointed pieces have the feel of being played on a late night radio station that’s occasionally interrupted by other broadcasts that have wandered into range. There’s some Twin Peaks-esque ‘reverse-speech’ at the start of ‘montolling’ and a melody at the end of ‘halan 5’ that I swear has been lifted from one of the musical motifs used in the Lord of the Rings films to accompany shots of Sauron. You might go as far to say the pieces on Oxland Cylinder are like debris that’s been left behind by grander and more elaborate electronic works. This is why the music can feel emptied, like a stretch of earth worn smooth from where a giant industrial cylinder once lay.

Although the reliance on huge walls of synth pads occasionally leaves one feeling suffocated, Oxland Cylinder conveys the peculiarity of artefacts rediscovered. It’s strange and liminal, seeming to belong somewhere else entirely...

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