Album Review: Six Organs of Admittance – Ascent

[Drag City; 2012]

Ben Chasny has been tinkering around with his own style of amorphous acoustic experimentation as Six Organs of Admittance for going on 15 years now. In fact, he’s been at it for so long that it’s hard to picture the man without at least thinking about him holding an acoustic guitar, hands languidly curling notes off into some vague musical ether. The fact that he, along with other notable artists in his field such as Sir Richard Bishop and James Blackshaw, has been able to continually release engaging and exciting music in what could be considered a fairly narrow genre is a testament to his ingenuity and creative drive. It’s hard to imagine a day goes by without his hands touching some variation of stringed instrument.

Ascent, his newest and arguably most fully realized album in years, feels exacting and creatively distinct in a way that allows Chasny the ability to explore and document what is ostensibly a tribute to his love of twisting, fractured 60’s psych/instrumental artists like Silver Apples and John Fahey. These songs spiral in on themselves and then expand in a continual movement that recalls the casual virtuosity of those artists. Before diehard Chasny fans revolt though, they should know that he hasn’t done away with some of the trademark experimental aspects that were a mainstay of his previous Six Organs of Admittance albums. The drone-ish ramblings from Asleep on the Floodplain and Luminous Night are still used to dynamic resolve and the dense psychedelic acousticism that has been a benchmark for all his albums (especially on break-out record School of the Flower) is here as well, though a bit more muted than on previous releases. But that should be obvious to fans, as Chasny has never really hid his love of or preference for this kind of unstructured melodicism.

He enlists the help of members of former psych-rock band Comets On Fire to lend some swirling guitars and dense atmospherics on opening track ‘Waswasa”, a dynamic slice of winding instrumental rock that owes a great deal of its personality to the interplay between Chasny’s circular guitar solos and the thicker, more opaque musical elements incorporated by his friends in that band. As an opener, the song suggests that we’re in for a more elastic interpretation of the typical Six Organs aesthetic. And while he’s never been one to shy away from an opportunity to further develop his musical perspective (his work as part of the raga and noise fueled semi-improvisational band Rangda is proof of that), this most definitely showcases a more muscular side to his music than we’ve heard before. That’s not to say that he’s ever been afraid to roll up his sleeves and crank up the amps, but Ascent feels like the first album in a long time where he just seems to be having a great time carelessly tossing off these monstrous swells of distortion and cascading solos. For an artist who seems so comfortable in his introspection, this album comes across as far more open and inclusive than previous releases.

Nowhere is this more evident than on “They Called You Near,” a noise-soaked refinement of everything that Six Organs of Admittance has released in the past 15 years. The guitars solidify behind Chasny’s mantra-like vocals and subtly contract and expand as the song slowly unfurls. Its’ walls of densely packed droning and trilled acoustic guitar build and develop until there seems to be no more room to move, but then they seem to grow aware of their own existence and then, just as quickly as they came, fade away to some indefinable end. We’re then treated to the beautifully ruminative “Solar Ascent,” a song seemingly obsessed with the idea of music as transformative agent. Through an initially simple acoustic guitar line and some subtle low-in-the-mix strings and ghostly vocal “ooh’s” that lead to the euphoric blast from his electric guitar, we begin to see a kind of musical genealogy in this song and on the album as a whole, that allows us to trace Chasny’s influences from his self-titled debut to Ascent. It should come as no surprise that we hears artists such as Captain Beefheart, The Red Krayola, and The 13th Floor Elevators all hovering maniacally over this song and many of the others on the record.

The most straightforward song here is “Your Ghost,” a primarily acoustic, elegiac song that recalls his best work on School Of The Flower and Dark Noontide. Other artists may have felt compelled to layer and coat this song with extraneous additions but Chasny knows enough about music to understand that more isn’t always better—at least, not for this song. But there is also a contrary, almost combative, spirit that presents itself as being just as relevant to the albums perspective, as on the sludgy “Even If You Knew” and the ferocious “One Thousand Birds.” The album deftly balances these introspective/outspoken parts and feels as though Chasny is leading us to some defining moment on the album. It’s as if we’ve been working our way up to it over the course of the record. But far from being that significant moment on the record, album closer “Visions (From Io)” acts a bridge between this release and wherever Chasny sees fit to take us next. It’s a small but frustrating aspect of the album. We’re waiting for that one song that pulls everything together, and while the others tracks (especially “They Called You Near”) on Ascent provide us with more than enough to tide us over until the next Six Organs of Admittance album, there is something missing, something that I can’t quite put my finger on.

Still, Ascent is self-assured and confident in a way that we’ve not heard from Chasney in a long time. His last few records, excluding the underappreciated Asleep On The Floodplain, have seemed to be weak impersonations of the kind of intensely meditative music that he released from his debut up to The Sun Awakens. It’s nice to hear him finally get back on track and release an album that’s not merely a shadow of his previous albums but one that sounds fuller and more cognizant of its own place in his growing discography. He may have made a misstep by not allowing the album to have that singularly defining moment but after his last few records, Ascent is a step up in terms of direction and execution. But I am holding him to the promise that the last track leaves you with. Whatever his next album sounds like, it has a lot to live up to. Consider my expectations raised.