Review: Charlie Butler ‘Ghost Light’

If you look up the word ‘prolific’ in a dictionary, there’s likely a picture of Charlie Butler accompanying the definition. With Bandcamp showing (I think) twenty-four releases since April 2020, Butler seems to have a pretty deep well of creativity to draw on, one that just keeps on giving. How I came across Butler’s canon of work I cannot for the life of me remember, probably it was referred to on an Instagram post or some such digital ephemera and I liked the look/sound of it.

Charlie Butler 'Ghost Light'

I do know that the first piece of his work that I owned is a cassette of Gathering Dust on the rather essential Panurus Productions label (‘…releasing odd music in nice packaging’). Since then, I have indulged in his oeuvre on no fewer than four occasions, picking works of immense guitar drone over the harsh noise, electronic, or ambient stuff that Butler also produces, and his album Analogue Funeral made my top ten of 2021 with room to spare.

Ghost Light comprises two tracks which come in at nearly forty minutes between them. Knowing this, I donned the cans and settled in for the journey.

Nine Travellers kicks off with a Laurie Anderson-esque synthetic vocal and organ drone, before a low guitar line and eighties-sounding drum machine kicks in. This caught me off guard – I’m not usually a fan of such things – but sticking with it, the guitar and organ begin to work with and around each other, establishing melodic lines that are beautiful in their simplicity. Everything builds, and builds, and builds against the steadfastly unchanging drumbeat (which I’m digging now, actually).

Guitar’s fuzz and buzz and I’m reminded of some of the instrumental work of a certain Arch Drood of Yatesbury before he disappeared up his own existence. Or even GNOD in some of their less angry moments. This is blissed out, trance-inducing stuff, drones building, overpowering the vaguely audible drum track that seems happy to just continue on its fading, metronomic way, until it all dies away leaving just a static organ line. The first twelve minutes of Nine Travellers is absolutely perfect, a hypnagogic blend of melody, static fuzz, and suppressed rhythmic delicacy that drags at your consciousness, urging it on to trance state. I could listen to it forever, obvs.

The second half (ish) of the track sets an ominous, melancholic guitar against that organ drone. The singular guitar line battles for auditory supremacy with swirling synth, enduring through sheer stubbornness before dropping away via a three note phrase that calls to mind church bells rounding off a pealing session. Great stuff.

The modal drone within and without this piece is asphyxiating in its density…

Magister, the second track on Ghost Light, begins with over six minutes of organ drone and cymbal play, sounding for all the world like a band gearing up for the first number of their set with an especially hyperactive (although, aren’t they all when sat behind a kit?) drummer enthroned behind a wall of metal. Then the drone gets serious people. Swirling, overlapping, coarse lines build into an ominous melody underpinned by simple drums that emphasise the existing rhythm constructed by accents in the melody.

The modal drone within and without this piece is asphyxiating in its density, constantly verging on overwhelming the melody whose repetition is itself consuming. The tone/timbre of these lines (guitar? synth?) is a beautiful shade of granular, with hints of feedback breaking through here and there to hint at a force barely contained, until it all breaks down, piece by piece, falling away to nought.

Occasionally, drone can get bogged down in tone, modal structure, technicality, blah, blah, blah, but here Butler’s work concerns emotion, feeling, and sensitivity just as much as it does the way in which it was constructed. This is a fine thing. First and foremost, music must make you feel something other than awe for the technical construction or proficiency. Magister does and does it in spades.

I would love to experience Ghost Light live, preferably witnessed through a fog of obscuring dry ice, with an oil projector and punctuating strobe to further scramble the senses, whilst being cocooned in suffocating drone, unable to break the surface… but in a good way, of course!

Ghost Light is an incredible realisation of an artistic vision. As a fan of his work, I feel that Butler has previously hinted at where he has arrived with this album. I’m sure that there is much, much more that this gifted and prolific artist has in his well that we can bear witness to in the future, not least because he doesn’t restrict his oeuvre to one style. But for now, this is my favourite of his, not inconsiderable, catalogue, and if he never conjured another drone piece again (Gods forbid!), Ghost Light would stand as testament to his command of this singular form of music. Bravo, Brother Butler!

Label: Echodelick Records
Band Links: Bandcamp | Instagram

Scribed by: George Green