There is a hexagonal storm on the north pole of Saturn, twice the size of Earth. It rotates, changes colors, and has probably existed for centuries. I was informed of this not by an astronomer but by a musician — Ben Chasny, guitarist and songwriter behind the long-running visionary project Six Organs of Admittance.
“Saturn actually has a hexagon at its north pole, have you ever seen it?” Chasny asks during our call. “There’s a cloud pattern on the north pole of Saturn and it moves. It spins. And they don’t really know what it is. It’s huge. The clouds have an angle. It looks really unnatural and I think it’s really fascinating.”
I’d asked about a song called “Somewhere in the Hexagon of Saturn”, a standout track from The Veiled Sea, the 20th Six Organs of Admittance release. A question about song titles had switched into a mood of Sagan-style wonder. Overall, the response was a microcosm of the conversation, an encounter with a musical mind open to astonishing associations and concepts.
Six Organs of Admittance emerged in 1998 with a self-titled collection of open-tuned guitar works, released in an edition of 400. Initially a home-recorded solo project, over time, its dimensions have expanded into pastoral folk, electrifying improvisation, and omnipotent dronescapes. More recent albums were created using the Hexadic system, Chasny’s method of composing with random playing card spreads.
Listeners acquainted with the vast Six Organs discography — or newcomers to Chasny’s orbit — will be amazed by the latest material. The ragas and riffs of a “typical” Six Organs record have escaped the force of gravity. The result is a set of songs both post-punk and cosmic. Six Organs played in a sci-fi key.
Where is The Veiled Sea? “I was just thinking in terms of fog, like the way the fog is kind of a veil. But I was thinking about it on another planet,” says Chasny. “I was thinking in terms of maybe a sea on another planet that had some sort of gaseous fog on top of it. That was the image in my mind.”
Add to that guiding image a simple, two-word summary: guitar solos. The album is an emanation of blistering, otherworldly shred that ceaselessly builds to cosmic scale.
“It’s a guitar record because it’s a very weird time for electric guitar solos right now,” says Chasny, pondering the cyclical nature of guitar heroics. “All of a sudden, in the last few years, I don’t know if it’s an Instagram thing, shredders have come back. You have all of these Instagram guitar players who are just shredding and shredding — to the point where to get anyone interested in anything they do, they have to ride a unicycle, play their guitar solo, and be juggling at the same time. It’s a really weird time for electric guitar solos. I feel like it’s sort of come back, but it’s very bizarre. And so the record is a bit of a commentary on these times.”
Shredding abounds on the aforementioned “Somewhere in the Hexagon of Saturn”. Blazing atop spectrums of synth atmosphere, the solo is a force of velocity and energy. “I just thought it’d be ridiculous to do an eight-minute guitar solo. Just keep going. I think if the guitar solo was shorter it wouldn’t have worked,” he laughs. “It becomes more ridiculous the more it just doesn’t stop, and that’s kind of what I was going for.”
Another highlight is “Last Station, Veiled Sea”, a nine-minute track featuring Chasny’s spectral vocals over a drift of mournful synths. And, yes, another massive guitar solo closes out the track, scorched and wailing as it disintegrates. “I just found this tone, I can’t get it again. It’s just one of those things where it was breaking up in this weird way with this perfect distortion, and breaking up in a way where the attack had this sizzle to it,” he explains when asked about the supernatural guitar tone.
“That’s a first take, which I can say most of my guitar solos are not. I just thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to redo this,’ so that’s how it came out,” he adds.
The Veiled Sea’s spaced-out glam and grandeur are both unique to and totally in keeping with Six Organs’ shapeshifting discography. From dank acoustic moods to composing albums using games of chance, Chasny is always seeking something more. His musical concerns are unbeholden to logic, previous trajectory, even human emotion.
“I don’t know why everyone puts primacy on emotion. If you listen to some, let’s say, free jazz records, certainly there would be emotion in there. But you’re also dealing with time. You’re dealing with a metaphysical aspect of tearing time apart. Time itself, the experience of time,” he says.
Chasny expands: “You could listen to a piece of music and it could make you experience something else differently besides an emotion. Maybe besides experiencing time differently, maybe you experience colors differently? A color is not an emotion, but maybe suddenly you understand the color red differently. I think people need to start speaking about music in language that doesn’t always put all of the weight of emotion, because there are so many other things to experience in life.”
“I think it’s time to start exploring the other aspects of existence that music can help us explore,” he concludes. Then comes the punchline: “Also, I need to tell you that I am a robot,” he laughs.
Twenty albums deep and still in flux, I ask Ben to consider the project’s change over time. He highlights an elusive balance between solo and communal music-making, explaining that “at the beginning, I had an idea of genre. I thought ‘acid folk’ and that’s really what I wanted to do. But as the project has gone on, I realize that there’s probably more about the tension or the push and pull, between community and being a hermit. So a record like this is very much a hermit record. And the last couple have been very solitary and hermit-style. But then some records I really want to be part of a community,” he reflects.
But the self/other split is but one dichotomy found in the Six Organs universe. Within its vast discography are the polarities of acoustic and electric music, improvisation and conceptualism, tradition, and experimentation. Depending on the release, or even within a particular song, a Six Organs listener is pulled between tonality and atonality, subjected to moments of transcendent beauty and existential dread.
And now, The Veiled Sea, an album informed by shred guitar pyrotechnics and extraterrestrial cloud patterns. I can think of few other musicians that could, or would even want to, pull off such a combination.
There’s a hexagonal storm on the north pole of Saturn. And it sounds like shredding.