Ben Chasny’s success as a musician is closely linked to the acoustic guitar. Classic Six Organs of Admittance records, like Dark Noontide or School of the Flower, rely heavily on Chasny’s impressive acoustic stylings, which draw more than a few lines to John Fahey’s Tacoma School or Robbie Basho or contemporaries like the late great Jack Rose. Chasny’s success and the sound of his band are not, however, solely linked to the acoustic guitar. Though he returned to its charms on the band’s last album, Asleep on the Floodplain, albums before it like Shelter from the Ash and Luminous Night explored more deeply the textures of heavily distorted electric guitars. Plus, we all remember – or should – Chasny’s work in Comets On Fire, an unpredictable, volatile rock band if ever there was one.
So Ascent is being touted as the full-band, full-electric Six Organs of Admittance album, and it is markedly different from the band’s other albums, though often in ways not altogether surprising. What becomes clear, from opener “Waswasa” on down, is that the guitars are less than ever conduits for texture on Ascent and more traditional deliverers of heady riffs. For all the wandering tonality of past Six Organs’ records, “Waswasa” is a refreshing blast of rock heft, something more akin to Black Sabbath than art-rock wandering. It plays like a streamlined – and much improved – version of the guitar onslaughts we heard from Rangda, Chasny’s side project with Sir Richard Bishop. But where that dealt in feedback and squall, “Waswasa” brings the hooks. The band rumbles behind, heavy with blues but propulsive, and the guitars knock out riffs and only break the spell of them to unleash towering, wah-heavy solos.
“Waswasa” is both a free sound and the sound of someone pulling free. No wonder, considering the title is a term used in Islam meaning repeated and unfounded doubts or fears. The song is a frenzied tugging on those exact chains, an attempt to break away from them and, as the title of the album implies, rise to some higher plain. It’s fitting, then, that the next song is “Close to the Sky”, a wide-open psych-rock desert cruise, full of gaping negative space around dusty guitars and Chasny’s treated high register. It feels more expansive than its predecessor, less tensed up and knotted, even if the guitars still unleash some blistering solo hell. The song, more than “Waswasa” sets up the feel for the rest of the record. It is an album that still dabbles in the acoustic tones and spiritually charged atmospherics – see “They Called You Near” – but it reshapes them here into more clearly defined shapes. “Solar Ascent”, the most stripped down of the songs on the album, does its fare share of noodling around, but you can feel the slow build of guitar phrasings building to something solid, not merely to more and endless expansion. “Your Ghost” feels like a basically structured folk song, with the deep echo of Chasny’s voice floating over dreamy finger picking.
In these moments, the electric elements are more there for support than upfront muscle, but these songs also juxtapose with “One Thousand Birds”, a song that bears little resemblance to anything in the Six Organs catalog or the Comets On Fire catalog. It’s another psych-rock gem, one that meshes perfectly Chasny’s ear for texture with dripping, hazy riffs and towering yet patiently paced solos. It’s the perfect example of what’s happening on Ascent. It is expansive and exploratory, but it has clear and recognizable rock structures. And here is where Chasny and Six Organs of Admittance succeed on this album – they have not adopted rock sounds to add to their aesthetic or continued to push the electric distortion and feedback of past records. Instead, they completely changed their approach and in the process became exactly what they claim to have become: a rock band.
This isn’t foolish marketing or a ploy to differentiate this record from its predecessors. Chasny has taken all his love of squall and meshed it with his eye for structure, he’s shaped his beautiful playing into thick and downright catchy riffs, and he’s injected a new energy into his project. If the last album, Asleep on the Floodplain, looked back at his more acoustic records, Ascent does indeed rise above, leaving behind all but the best bits of past successes, and (hopefully) setting a fruitful and surprising path for a band that was already pretty unpredictable to begin with.