Ben Chasny released his first record under the moniker Six Organs of Admittance way back in 1998, as part of a deep underground that was ignoring that decade’s prevailing indie-rock currents and was instead reigniting the fires of drone, folk, psychedelia, and out-rock for a small audience of appreciative listeners. He’s back with Ascent, and if his earlier work was more about exploring the drone and the folk, this record continues his progression into rockier environs. If it doesn’t reach the heights of his best work, it’s still a good one, worthy for longtime fans and newcomers alike.
Of course the loose movement described above couldn’t help but gain steam, inevitably assisting in the proliferation of freak-folking, New Weirdness, and experimental noise-mining that defined a big part of the indie landscape of the Aughts. And Chasny played a big role in this state of affairs, joining up with heavy-psyche monsters Comets on Fire, though he continued to release records (though at a somewhat slower pace) under the Six Organ’s name and eventually became a member of the avant-folk supergroup Rangda with guitarist Sir Richard Bishop (Sun City Girls, Sublime Frequencies) and drummer extraordinaire Chris Corsano (Flaherty/Corsano, Jandek, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Björk).
Where some musical movements are almost stingy in how they methodically dole out the documentation of their assorted progressions, this avant/folk/psyche/noise “scene” was the extreme opposite, with so much music flooding onto merch tables and into the racks of hole in the wall shops and online vendors that it was often impossible to keep up with the prodigious outpouring of just one band or artist, much less a portion of the ever morphing expansive whole.
And that was a major part of that whole thing’s appeal. Miss that limited edition lathe-cut 7’’ or the homemade CD-R packaged with pressed leaves and drawings done in crayon of the lovely likeness of the great Bert Jansch? Well don’t worry; there’ll be more where that came from. Six Organs of Admittance’s discography didn’t fall to the ridiculous end of the prolificacy spectrum (though thirteen full-lengths is impressive), but Chasny was surely busy enough that I haven’t heard all of his issued stuff.
I have gathered a strong enough handle on the man’s output to relate with confidence that his work under Six Organs has slowly taken on a rockier sensibility, though that shouldn’t be confused with the Detroit/Hawkwind/International Artists-styled ear bleed that Comets on Fire ripped out before going on hiatus. No, even as he’s integrated rock elements that are similar to Comets into the fold he’s managed to keep the sound of Six Organs distinct and Ascent sounds closer to the psychedelic rock ideas shaped in Britain and San Francisco in the second half of the ‘60s.
But opener “Waswasa” might give the false impression that Chasny has elected to morph Six Organs into a continuation of the work of Comets, and as Ascent is essentially a reunion with his ex-bandmates (recorded at Tim Green’s Louder Studios) that impression wouldn’t be particularly off base. The tune does radiate vibes not unlike the wailing full-tilt intensity that was a part of Comets’ four album run (Chasny joined fulltime halfway through with Blue Cathedral, their third record and first for Sub Pop). And the fact that the Comets were part of the Six Organs touring configuration way back in 2002 that recorded and almost but ultimately didn’t release a record only reinforces that Ascent is a sort of reunion presented under Chasny’s longtime banner.
But the second track “Close to the Sky” makes clear that this record is directly in line with Chasny’s evolving and always interesting output as Six Organs of Admittance, and that Ascent is a strong addition of the man’s output, sorta reunion or no. It hits a killer mid-tempo with very large bass propulsion and guitar playing that begins at a Quicksilver-like place and then heads for the land of unrestrained pedal-stomp. All the while the rhythm section sets a fine groove and rides it without a second’s hesitancy. And then there’s a pull back, with some added guitar figures (that almost connect like autoharp or something similar) that are positively pretty. When combined with Chasny’s vocals at the outset it’s readily apparent that Ascent is a unique beast.
“Close to the Sky” bleeds right into “They Called You Near,” which briefly insinuates a post-Barrett pre-Dark Side Floydian vibe through the singing (which is cool enough), but then shifts into a raga-esque passage and rides it to the end, and all in less than four and a half minutes. How disciplined! And “Solar Ascent,” while clearly informed by the outward bound progressions of the original Haight-Ashbury/Hyde Park shebang examines the sort of folk/rock/psyche split that was really impossible in the late-‘60s/early-‘70s era; Chasny’s music is securely of reflection and then extension, not simple retrospection.
“One Thousand Birds” continues in a manner similar to “Close to the Sky;” string burn, unflagging drums, mammoth bass, and vocals that never overreach (a really important factor; there’s no overwrought bluesy wailing to be found here), with the vibe landing midway between a ballroom circa-’67 and the stage of an indie-festival from approximately anytime in the last decade.
This is to emphasize that Ben Chasny has found his place and has no need to adjust it to the whims of the latest big thing. But with that said, Ascent is far from any kind of isolationist time warp. The hip peak for Six Organs of Admittance might’ve been last decade, but that doesn’t mean Ascent feels like yesterday’s news. It’s all about right now.
For instance, play the blend of deep acoustics and rich vocals found in “Your Ghost” for other ears and you might just get a kiss on the cheek or even the lips from fans of stuff as varied as John Fahey and Antony and the Johnsons. Try it, baby! Big wet ones for everybody!! But as nice of a diversion as this track presents, “Even If You Knew” returns us to the heavy-psyche sweet-spot that is Ascent’s best attribute.
While this record is a more than welcome addition to the library and goes down from beginning to end without a hitch, after reflection its second and penultimate tracks point to what Chasny might want to explore with this lineup and under the moniker of Six Organs in the future, specifically sprawling, gradually developing heavy jams that don’t turn their back on the melodicism; a four song double LP could possibly stoke my ass but good.
This isn’t to say that Ascent’s last track “Visions (From Io)” isn’t a stone gas. It’s also a tune I wouldn’t have the slightest compunction putting on a mix-tape for a Rumors-era Fleetwood Mac-loving loved one. Yes, it’s thoroughly accessible, and yet it possesses a surplus of the sort of backbone that’s defined the work of Ben Chasny from his earliest releases right up to the ever-loving now.
I’ve no doubt that the next Six Organs of Admittance release, whenever it hits the racks, will differ from my recommendation for the future progress of Chasny’s pursuits. And that’s cool. Maybe the next one will exceed my expectations, maybe it won’t. But what’s even cooler is that he’s not standing still, repeating the same old stuff, and he’s still working with Rangda and is still totally open to a rekindling of Comets on Fire.
Chasny is traversing a rocky trail extremely well. He’s probably lost plenty of folks who stubbornly preferred his earlier drone/folk stuff to the more rock oriented later releases, of which this is one. And sure, I think Chasny’s For Octavio Paz is his finest work, but hell if I’m not going to keep an ear cocked for whatever he brings next. Ascent is a fine step in Chasny’s long trip. Let’s hope he keeps traveling on a solid path.
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