Album Review: Six Organs of Admittance
"The Sun Awakens"
Drag City; 2006
Writing a Six Organs of Admittance review is a difficult task, even for the most experienced of music journalists. Not often does one have to deal with songs exceeding twenty minutes in length, entire albums without vocals, or numerous segments of artful noise. Nihilism and almost absurdly simple imagery are not easy themes to analyze.
Most importantly, there are no reference points with which to approach the music. There is no social context from which it emerges; it’s easy to see why the Arcade Fire singing about innocence and mortality matters to today’s youth and even easier to see how Art Brut challenging the pretentiousness of indie music can be so refreshing. In singer/songwriter Ben Chasny’s case, it’s not that simple. His music is an amalgamation of different times, places, ideas, and artistic whims. Essentially, there’s nowhere thatSix Organs of Admittance “belongs”.
Sure, the freak-folk movement tried to rope Chasny in, but it's becoming clearer and clearer that the only real connection there is a well-worn acoustic guitar and an admiration for Devendra Banhart. Of course there’s plenty of talk about Keiji Haino and Dead C and the other obscure influences he manages to come up with, but those too fall apart if you’re willing to look more than skin-deep. And then there’s always his other projects—Comets on Fire, Current 93, Badgerlore, August Born, and so on and so forth—but you can already see why Chasny is so damn hard to pin down. He’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Which is the best way I can describe his music. Across the background of deft fingerpicking and ambient noise, there’s a sort of aural picture being painted, but the more intently you stare at it, the quicker it dissolves into a memory of a memory, whisked away by the wind. It’s the equivalent of waking in the middle of the night and trying to distinguish between what was real and what was dreamt, but never quite arriving at the answer. This, however, is the beauty of the music—its fleeting permanence finds comfort in the deepest recesses of the soul, if one allows it to get that far. The tragedy is that most listeners don’t.
None of Chasny’s seven previous albums have communicated this enigmatic feeling quite so well as "The Sun Awakens". It opens gently, almost disarmingly, with tracks “Torn by Wolves” and “Bless Your Blood”. The former is less a song and more a welcome, drums skipping lazily behind a carefree guitar melody. The latter begins in a similar fashion but quickly gives way to spacious vocal harmonies, Chasny’s throaty baritone, and the hums of a feedbacking guitar.
“Black Wall”, however, is where the album truly begins, ferocious guitar work and insistent drones settling comfortably into Six Organs’ style. Though it’s the only song on the album driven by vocals, it’s home to one of Chasny’s most impressive performances. The following track, “The Desert Is A Circle” falls somewhere between an epic cowboy song and the soundtrack to a Japanese war movie, though far exceeds both in quality.
“Attar”, the next track, is a tumultuous three minutes of buildup, giving way into the unexpectedly docile “Wolves’ Pup” which carries on in the same vein as the album opener. These first six tracks are together the most cohesive and accessible collection of songs that Chasny has authored to date, and standing alone they would make for a strong album. The seventh track, however, is where the real journey begins.
Taking up more than half of the album’s runtime is the twenty-four minute “River of Transfiguration”. What transpires in that time is in many ways new to the Six Organs catalog. Tone generators, the song’s backbone, oscillate slowly in the mix. There are no acoustic guitars to be heard. What sounds like a choir of monks marching to their death chants a somber dirge. Noel Van Harmonson’s drums twitch in and out as they please. A variety of instruments soaked with reverb make for the stratosphere. It can barely be deemed a song, in fact—-the title of “experience” or “experiment” suits it much more comfortably. It’s quite likely to test the patience of many listeners, eight minutes transpiring before anything really happens, and slowly fading into silence for the track’s final six minutes.
It can be a difficult piece to work through, granted, but devoted listeners know that the difficult tracks are the tracks that offer the greatest reward in the end. Some critics (like Coke Machine Glow’s Clayton Purdom, whose review you can read here) call the song pretentious (perhaps even beyond pretentious), arguing that Chasny is simply being irresponsible and ruining what is otherwise a fantastic album.
But to say that is to confuse “pretentious” with “ambitious”. I don’t believe for even a second that Chasny only recorded “River of Transfiguration” because he could. Instead, it feels that he’s reaching for a higher goal, a sort of spiritual movement through music, without certainty that it will even work. And while the success of the track relies largely on his skill as a musician, to say that the track is a pointless display of talent or an illusion of grandeur is to forget that a track such as this may actually be the best use of his talent and may be a true moment of grandeur. The first six tracks are nothing without “River of Transfiguration” acting as an imposing foil to the album’s cohesive first half. True, in the end it may mean nothing, but to Chasny the nihilist, there is nothing more genuine and beautiful than futility and meaninglessness.
Which, after all, is sort of the point of Six Organs of Admittance. There is chaos in its noise breakdowns, there is man toiling stubbornly in its guitars, there is nature in its imagery, and there is oblivion in its scope. "The Sun Awakens" is an album that flawlessly balances the thin line between nothing and everything and, in the process, makes both more beautiful, meaning be damned.
Six Organs of Admittance - Black Wall
Six Organs of Admittance - Attar
- Dominick Duhamel -
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