The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Reviews

Six Organs Of Admittance
Hexadic John S.W. MacDonald , February 11th, 2015 12:32

In the years since Ben Chasny's 1998 self-titled debut as Six Organs Of Admittance – released in an initial pressing of just 400 copies, hand-painted and hand-stamped by Chasny himself – the California native has established himself as something of a psych-folk icon. This is a result of both his prodigious output – well over a dozen records in 17 years – and the enduring eclecticism of his approach. The atmosphere is consistent: foggy, meditative, vaguely conspiratorial – but the musical details are always changing: harsh drones on 2002's Dark Noontide, somber classical guitars on 2004's For Octavio Paz, acid-drenched psych shredding on 2012's Ascent (made with Chasny's former band mates in Comets On Fire). While the freak-folk movement, which hailed Six Organs as a founding father, has largely come and gone, Chasny has continued to toil away in the dense swamp inhabited by Sunn O))), Harry Smith and art-house guitarists like Loren Connors.

Coming two full years after Ascent, Hexadic ends the longest drought in Six Organs' recorded history. It also marks the biggest aesthetic break from Chasny's past work. Hexadic employs a singular, chance-based method of musical composition called the "Hexadic System", developed by Chasny over the last couple years, to create the tonal, rhythmic and lyrical framework on which every track is based. Details on how the system actually works are in short supply (though apparently there's a book forthcoming from Chasny's Drag City label that will explain the whole thing). But suffice it to say that the system uses traditional playing cards to determine the particular set of six notes, called a "hexafield", that can be used for any composition, and that a similarly random, yet highly rule-bound process is involved in the creation of the lyrics.

The record's press materials describe the system as "designed to free sound and language from rational order and replace calculation with indeterminacy." Point taken. And Chasny has said in recent interviews that he came up with the Hexadic System in part to re-energise his guitar playing and push it in new, uncomfortable directions.

The question, of course, is whether it makes for good records. Hexadic is certainly the most bracing, least accessible album Chasny has ever made as Six Organs Of Admittance. Imagine the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat as a free jazz excursion – molten electric guitar solos splayed over clippity-clop percussion and lurching bass, with the occasional word or two ("fake!" "path!" "cut!" – it's not entirely clear) barked over the mix. Six Organs is just a trio here, but the band makes an unholy racket. Chasny's guitar sound is so blown-out and goopy with distortion that you could practically hold it in your hands.  

      

When this mess congeals enough to produce a semblance of melody, as it does on the Sabbath-esque 'Wax Chance' and the mournful 'Hollow River,' it can be a nerve-wracking good time. But all that feral noise has little to do with the unique mechanics of the Hexadic System itself, and often overshadows it entirely. There's little in 'Sphere Path Code C' or 'Maximum Hexadic' that you couldn't get from psych freaks like Acid Mothers Temple.

To really get a sense of the system in action, seek out Hexadic’s rare quiet moments. Once you peal away all that overdriven guitar, you can see each little gear in the Hexadic System spinning, whirring and (occasionally) locking into place. 'Future Verbs' begins with a lone electric guitar walking its way down two octaves from a high B to a low B in slow chromatic steps. The bass and drums then show up, making soft, punctual interjections, before more clean guitars arrive, following the first one around like drunks stumbling after a loose umbrella on a windy day. The whole thing is deeply unsettling, and more thrilling than any of the record's White Light freak-outs.

Ultimately, Hexadic is more compelling as a concept than a piece of music, and few folks are likely to follow Chasny deep into the record's blistering hot core more than a couple times. But within the wider context of his eclectic discography, this little detour makes perfect sense. Chasny has built a stunning career out of never repeating himself album-to-album; now, relying on the Hexadic System's random tone generator, he's made a single record in which he never repeats himself at all.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.