Ben Chasny is certainly a busy man. Between working on projects like August Born and Current 93, and when he’s not performing with his other full-time gig in Comets on Fire, Ben finds time to record and release solid records under the Six Organs of Admittance moniker. With the 2005 release of The Sun Awakens, Chasny began to mesh his acoustic-guitar-virtuoso act with some of the more electric elements of Comets on Fire. The results were solid, and the songs were a little more structured than previous Six Organs of Admittance releases. Now, with Shelter from the Ash, Chasny is seeking to expand his sonic palate even further.
This is no small task, seeing as he is a man unafraid to experiment. Releases like the one-sided vinyl The Manifestation, and his contribution to a split 7” with drone geniuses Om are extended sound experiments, often more fuzz and hum tension than his usual guitar high-wire act. Even the closer to The Sun Awakens, “River of Transfiguration”, runs for over 23 minutes with no discernable structure. Where that song ran into trouble is that, with all of its expanse, it made the tighter, better songs on the record feel canned. And since Chasny always includes a healthy dose of improvisation on his records, a quality that makes them feel loose and assured, canned is never the result he would want.
But, with Shelter from the Ash, Chasny has managed to marry his improvisational impulses with his brilliant understand of song structure. “Alone with the Alone” sounds at first like pure cacophony, like a strung-out orchestra tuning-up for four minutes. But under Tim Green’s screeching guitar, and Noel Harmonson’s all-over-the-map drumming, it is Chasny’s finger picked acoustic, the faintest instrument in the mix, which keeps the song tethered down. It reaches and stretches but never pulls free.
The electric guitar work is really fantastic on this album. And though we see appearances by guitar-hero-for-hire Matt Sweeney, much of the electric soloing here is done by Chasny himself. “Strangled Road” spends most of its time sounding like an outtake from School of the Flower. It is spare and slowed-down. But in the end Chasny brings on a towering guitar solo, all fully bent notes that sounds like an animal pulling on a chain. It is one of many moments on the album that shows Chasny mining new tensions, ones that don’t, like so much of his older work does, involve stretching time. While none of the songs here are exactly short, the eight tracks come together to make something economic and immediate.
More than The Sun Awakens, Shelter from the Ash meshes the best elements of older Six Organs of Admittance albums with a new sense of cohesion. “Goddess Atonement” gives Chasny his best chance to noodle, snapping rapid-fire notes off the fretboard almost before you hear them. But before long he reins the acoustic in, and it joins up with electric guitar and Wurlitzer to execute a much steadier, more controlled rise and fall, one that is no less effective for being so straightforward.
Shelter from the Ash is an exciting listen for any fan of Ben Chasny’s previous work. He is the kind of performer that does so much, it almost seems guaranteed he’ll peter out at some point. But, rather than push at a new boundary, one this is no longer there for him, he’s gone back and tried to meld the elements he’s already nailed. And, on this album, the mix is just right.