[23 February 2011]
“I grew up in a tiny house at the end of a place called Elk River Valley. We had a gigantic redwood tree in our yard and Elk River flowed through our backyard. My childhood was spent climbing trees and playing in the forest and exploring the woods… I recently went back to visit that place. Memories of childhood reveries flooded my senses and it was so powerful. I realized that my folk music comes from this place and the trees, smells and all the feelings that are locked up, and the only way back to them is through music.”
Ben Chasny, the hippie guitar luminary behind Six Organs of Admittance, said this to the British magazine Terrascope in 1999 as they were writing a comprehensive feature about him. (It is a must-read for any Six Organs fan.) Around that time, he had just finished his brambly and experimental CD, Dust and Chimes, yet one can hear Chasny’s sentiments about home and nature in all the music he has made since then. It’s a simple and profound statement that also sums up why listeners are so passionate about their childhood bands. We can never get our youth back, but we can remember, and music works on the emotional components of memory in a way that a Polaroid can’t quite manage.
But Chasny isn’t trying to invoke all of our homes for us. He is playing music about his home with a passion, which is just as powerful. There has never been a doubt in my mind that his records come from Northern California, whether it’s the Elk River Valley near Eureka or the San Francisco Bay Area, where he now resides. Like Thuja member Loren Chasse does with his field recordings, Six Organs of Admittance finds the beauty of California’s upper regions in the sprawling and bustling Bay Area, albeit in a different way. The attempt to connect these places is quite apparent on Chasny’s newest and most forthcoming album to date, Asleep on the Floodplain. Here, “home” means two things: his childhood home a stone’s throw away from Oregon, which forms the record’s theme, and his current home 270 miles southward, where Asleep on the Floodplain was conceived and recorded.
Sounding like it was made outdoors in a valley between brushy mountains (without the rustling or squawking), Asleep is earthy and raw where 2009’s Luminous Night was polished and strained, a mostly acoustic affair that still retains much of Six Organs’ rumbling density. Its kindred record would be 2005’s School of the Flower, also acoustic, and those who passed over Shelter from the Ash (2007) and Luminous Night may wonder if anything’s changed. Of course, Asleep on the Floodplain is a step back in the best sense. Chasny relies not on a Renaissance Fair’s assemblage of strings and woodwinds, but on his awe-inspiring mastery of the guitar that won him a following. Few in the 21st century wield as much power over their instrument as he does, and he plays as if everything from a simple pluck to the most advanced techniques might unlock a treasured memory.
You can hear it in the sheer feeling behind “Above a Desert I’ve Never Seen”, a track with Middle Eastern chord progressions and quick trills that Six Organs could have made five years ago, but whose intensely yearning quality places it in this record’s context. Other songs reference childhood more directly: On “Dawn, Running Home”, Chasny recalls how it was to sleep over in his friend’s tree house, and he sets those recollections to a dreamy soundtrack that had me imagining two happy children running through the meadowlands. “Hold But Let Go” is a bittersweet folk tune whose lyrics, consisting almost entirely of the words in the title, serve as a kind of mantra to help him keep the past in perspective. “Light of the Light” represents the song’s flip side, as he flies himself back to a day in his life and remains there until the light fades away.
Asleep on the Floodplain even shows Six Organs evolving, or at least trying new things, though Chasny is so quiet about it that it almost goes unnoticed. “Brilliant Blue Sea Between Us” is a shimmering ambient piece fraught with nautical tension and a striking reminder of the Fennesz/Tim Hecker aesthetic. Harmonic layers of processed mystery instruments—could be anything from a guitar to an electric who-knows-what—form a body of water that feels deeply sad, while a single strum breaks the surface like someone diving in to reach his true love on the other side. The 12-minute “S/word and Leviathan” takes Six Organs’ penchant for long tracks to an entirely new place, where a swarm of strums, chants and finger picks sinks into the earth and makes it tremble. Most astonishing is “River of My Youth”, a collaboration with Magik Markers’ Elisa Ambrogio, whose melancholic scales and clouded atmosphere reflect the cascade of conflicted emotions that come with thinking about childhood as an adult.
Listen to “River of My Youth” and picture Ben Chasny in his home now, imagining himself at his home then, face to face with the Elk River in his old backyard. The water is moving steadily along the current, never stopping, always hustling toward the next place. What would he say to the river? What experiences, triumphs or heartaches would he share? How might he interact with it? Would he swim or just catch his reflection? How long would he hold it before he knew to let it go? As this album sees release and the dust settles, I think that Chasny will be partaking in a process like this one, asking himself these questions, if he hasn’t already begun. And though he may have made this record about himself, for himself, I believe he is speaking to all of us, imploring us to remember.