In a fairer world, Ben Chasny would be as famous as Jimi Hendrix. As frontman (and sole full-time member) of Six Organs Of Admittance, he has invented a unique mode of composing and performing guitar music, a whole new musical language based on the Hexadic System developed by Phil Legard and influenced by Plato and Pythagoras. Chasny’s two recent Hexadic albums were object lessons in the emancipatory possibilities of constrained technique, a philosophy that echoes the Oulipo authors and modernist composition. The results were beautiful reminders of what can still be achieved with six strings and a fertile imagination.
But Chasny’s output is more varied and more interesting even than those two excellent albums. He first recorded as 6OOM in 1998, emerging at the beginning of the first wave freak-folk boom. Even then he was pushing boundaries, and his lengthy, modal trips and raga-soaked incantatory freakouts carried the genre to its logical extreme, finishing the job started by the Incredible String Band thirty years previously. Listened to today, they sound like the conclusion of a genre, rather than its beginnings.
For his new album he has gone full circle, moving away from the uneasy tonal symmetry of his recent Hexadic past and indeed from the epic weirdness that characterised his earlier work to record an album of shorter, more conventional songs brimming with disarmingly simple guitar parts, songs that recall the hazy days of The Golden Apples Of The Sun compilation. But conceptual intrigue is never far away where Chasny is concerned. His ear for poetry is well-documented – he once recorded an album dedicated to the Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz – and Things As They Are, the first song on Burning The Threshold is a gentle, acoustic paean to the life of American modernist poet Wallace Stevens. As usual, the guitar is to the forefront, with Chasny’s voice a murmur on the periphery. There are also the vaguely devotional songs that we’ve become used to from Six Organs: the lovely Adoration Song (which references French philosopher Gaston Bachelard) in which electric and acoustic guitars dance lightly around each other and long-time collaborator Chris Corsano’s percussion provides a dusty backdrop, never allowing things to get too saccharine.
Where many musicians use instrumental tracks as stop-gaps, time-fillers or chances for the listener to catch their breath, Chasny tends to put them centre stage. Some of Burning The Threshold’s best moments are instrumental. Around The Axis’ nimble fingerpicking and Reservoir’s glimmering layers have a touch of John Renbourn or John Fahey about them, while St Eustace is a loping, cyclical thing, underpinned by Corsano’s uncharacteristically restrained drumming.
Having sole control over his project has allowed Chasny to pick and choose his collaborators judiciously. Here, outside influence is used sparingly: on the slowly unfolding Under Fixed Stars we are treated to the vocal talents of Circuit Des Yeux’s Haley Fohr, and elsewhere Ryley Walker makes an appearance on guitar. But this album, despite its retreat from excess, is still recognisably a Six Organs creation. Taken By Ascent comes closest to the lengthy jams of yesteryear, building into a mystical, acoustic headrush overlaid with psychy electric guitar fuzz and small controlled explosions of percussion. Threshold Of Light brings us closest to that early 2000s Golden Apples sound, with its downward spiral of guitars and devotional lyrics, while closer Reflection once again sees electric and acoustic components approach, intermingle and part.
As with much of Chasny’s output, it is Burning The Threshold’s tangible atmosphere as much as its songcraft that makes it unique. Credit must go to Chasny and his skill as a guitarist and composer for being able to consistently create that atmosphere – often dreamlike and otherworldly but oddly familiar – time and time again, whatever method he chooses to use. He is one of America’s most important guitarists and Burning The Threshold is one of his most accomplished and accessible releases to date.
Released 24 February 2017 via Drag City
Six Organs of Admittance plays a record release show tomorrow (22 Feb) at St Pancras Old Church, London before touring N. America. See below.
Six Organs of Admittance Tour Dates
2/22/17 St. Pancras Old Church London
3/2/17 The Colbat Vancouver British Columbia Canada
3/3/17 Fremont Abbey Arts Center Seattle WA
3/4/17 Bunk Bar Portland OR
3/6/17 The Chapel San Francisco CA
3/7/17 Bootleg Theater Los Angeles CA
3/8/17 Soda Bar San Diego CA
3/23/17 Big Ears Festival Knoxville TN
3/28/17 The Earl Atlanta GA
3/29/17 The Mothlight Asheville NC
3/30/17 Kings Barcade Raleigh NC
3/31/17 DC9 Washington DC
4/1/17 Union Pool Brooklyn NY
4/2/17 Great Scott Allston MA
4/3/17 Space Portland ME
4/5/17 Johnny Brenda’s Philadelphia PA
4/6/17 Club Cafe Pittsburgh PA
4/7/17 Beachland Tavern Cleveland OH
4/8/17 Third Man Records Cass Corridor Detroit MI
4/9/17 Empty Bottle Chicago IL
4/10/17 7th Street Entry Minneapolis MN
4/12/17 Colectivo Coffee Milwaukee WI
4/14/17 Duck Room at Blueberry Hill St. Louis MO
4/15/17 Zanzabar Louisville KYEmma Gatrill – Cocoon