Six Organs of Admittance 2024
Photo: Kami Chasny / Pitch Perfect PR

Six Organs of Admittance Traverses Life’s Purgatory on ‘Time Is Glass’

Six Organs of Admittance’s Time Is Glass is ultimately about estrangement in this world with songs that inhabit the space between immanence and transcendence.

Time Is Glass
Six Organs of Admittance
Drag City
26 April 2024

Six Organs of Admittance, the project helmed by guitarist Ben Chasny, has always conveyed the idea of the journey. This journey may be either physical or metaphysical – it often manifests as both – but it is persistently anchored in the exploratory melodic lines that Chasny has recorded across almost two dozen albums. Time Is Glass continues this self-directed path. It is both inwardly drawn and outward-looking, encompassing both ways of experiencing the world.

The name Six Organs of Admittance refers to the six senses identified in Buddhism: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking. Chasny’s music is limited to two (or possibly four) of these senses, though perhaps he is suggesting that an additional set exists beyond the dictates of Buddhism. Either way, his compositions frequently aspire to a spiritual or mystical understanding of music, with this kind of sensory experience elevating ordinary circumstances. Drawing from different global music traditions, his songs often possess a quality that seeks to stir awakening or individual enlightenment.

The first track, “The Mission”, illustrates these attributes. Hymn-like in character, the song is sketched simply with a plaintive acoustic guitar and an intentionally blurry vocal effect that could be one or more voices. With lyrics that are almost imperceptible, Chasny encourages the listener to lean in closer, buoyed by the track’s minor key notes that create an emotional undertow that is both melancholic and sanguine. The feeling imparted is beautiful and otherworldly, hovering dreamlike between the known and the unknown, resembling what Chasny has discussed elsewhere as the realm of oneiric consciousness.

This approach is sustained in different ways throughout the remainder of the album. Chasny does not like to repeat himself. He has gone so far as to invent a system of chance known as Hexadic, which uses a deck of playing cards to determine a song’s composition. This technique is similar to John Cage’s chance operations based on the I Ching or Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. Chasny employed this technique on the albums Hexadic (2015), Hexadic II (2015), and Hexadic III (2018), each of which is unique in sound if similar in method. The first is noise rock, the second is acoustic folk music, and the third is a curated series of collaborations with other musicians.

Time Is Glass is more conventional in its diversity. (I concede, though, that Chasny may still be using the same technique, or parts of it, unannounced.) The second track, “Hephaestus”, named after the Greek god of fire and metallurgy, is solely instrumental and unnerving in tone, recalling the drone work Six Organs of Admittance has done on earlier LPs. The third, “Slip Away”, returns securely to lush chord progressions on acoustic guitar with atmospheric vocals. It’s gorgeously executed. The following “Pilar” provides another instrumental interlude.

Tacking back and forth in this way, Time is Glass builds momentum as it advances. There is a subtle Dantesque feel to the album’s sequencing, with the tracks seemingly occupying a space of increasing darkness followed by light. Toward the end of the record, “Spinning in the River” has blasts of electric guitar that shake the listener’s attention amid lyrics that suggest both freedom and entrapment through loss of agency. The wordless penultimate track, “Summer’s Last Rays”, exudes anxiety which escalates as the song proceeds. A sense of release is found in the final composition, “New Year’s Song”, whose refrain of “no blame, no blame, no blame” implies absolution.

The publicity material says this album is about returning home to northern California after 20 years away. Time Is Glass‘ title imparts the idea of time as smooth and ordinary but also elegant and a vessel for beauty. Like glass, time is manmade and durable but also fragile and even breakable. It is forged in fire, with effects dissimilar from its origins. Time Is Glass equally conveys the concept of time as a lens, shaping and determining how we perceive the world. 

This album could have dwelled on the specifics of time and place. Yet, Six Organs of Admittance appears intent on going beyond these surface features. Elemental images of light—fire, dawn, stars, the morning sun—preoccupy the gnomic lyrics on this album. Metaphorical movements like slipping away, breaking down, burning, and spinning in a river are the actions described across Time Is Glass. These facets, which reach for universal themes, inform the cyclical and linear notions of time that cohabitate in this LP. 

On more than one occasion, Chasny has commented on the influence of the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard on his thinking. Bachelard is known for The Poetics of Space (1958), which argues for a phenomenological understanding of place. More specifically, memory and imagination can define space as much as tactile geography or materialism. This approach applies to Time is Glass, where northern California is invoked only obliquely, if at all. The sense of return on this album is rendered in feelings and perspective gained rather than a literal homecoming.

For some listeners, the aspect of return may also be observed in how Time Is Glass invokes the early work of Six Organs of Admittance on albums like For Octavio Paz (2003), School of the Flower (2005), and Asleep on the Floodplain (2011). Chasny has been as restless as he has been prolific – the two qualities mutually inform one another – with his intricate guitarwork attempting to articulate something that can’t be easily communicated, whether in secular or mystical terms, thus prompting recurrence, if not repetition, in his catalog. 

The word “theophany” (a visible manifestation of God), which is in one song title, may provide a final intimation for understanding this album. As enigmatic as it is, Time Is Glass is ultimately about estrangement in this world, not the next one. There is a spirituality here that resembles that found in the recent films of Terence Malick. Revising Thomas Wolfe, Chasny is saying you can’t go home again, but was there even a home to begin with? 

Time Is Glass seems haunted by this question with songs that inhabit the territory between immanence and transcendence. This ontological purgatory, which is reflected in the differences between the past and present, the material and the spiritual, as well as home and elsewhere, is not necessarily a source of crisis. For Six Organs of Admittance, it’s the very wellspring of creation.

RATING 8 / 10