As has become normal, a new Six Organs of Admittance album arrives amidst a flurry of extra-Organic work from Ben Chasny. 2010 saw him release the excoriating False Flag as one third of Rangda with Richard Bishop and Chris Corsano. This year should see the release of two albums by 200 Years, a duo project with Elisa Ambrogio of Magik Markers (one is due on Drag City in the spring, the other is scheduled to appear as part of the Grapefruit subscription record club). And there are other ongoing collaborations, both on and off record.
It’s tempting to suggest that Asleep on the Floodplain steers a middle course between the blistering electricity of False Flag and the “late night blues” that have been promised by 200 Years. Except that there were plenty of mesmerizing, blissed-out vibes woven into Rangda’s noise offensive. And we don’t, at the time of writing, know quite what to expect from the Chasny-Ambrogio project. So let’s situate this album as a partial return to the acoustic guitar pieces that established the Six Organs style, albeit with occasional touch of “sinister” electric guitar that have shaped more recent works.
On the first few listens, the parts that really sing are those where there is no singing. The vocals seem fine as far as they go — sometimes even quite lovely — but the guitar work trumps them every time. However, as one gets to know the album, and to listen to it as an album, those vocals insinuate themselves in the mind, becoming one with the other sounds. Indeed, as he has done before, Chasny suggests singing as a mode of becoming, a process rather than a fixed thing. These lyrics — fragmentary, sparse, sometimes barely discernible — refuse any kind of closing down that more obvious verse-chorus-verse pieces might claim.
The instrumental numbers include solo guitar pieces recorded with no additional trickery and others with harmonium overdubbed. Some, such as the lovely “Poppies,” are miniatures that allow us to marvel at Chasny’s sense of dynamics, at the way he gets us concentrating on the bass runs while he runs circles around us with the higher notes. Other tracks, such as the harmonium-enhanced album opener, develop ideas over a longer period, mixing slow strums with rippling string dances. The recording throughout is brilliant, a listener-friendly mix of hi-fi clarity and low fuzz. Where Rangda assaulted, here Chasny caresses. Where Rangda reveled in the rock, here Chasny glories in the resonance of wooden music.
The album as a whole has an instrumental feel to it, underlined by the non-assertive nature of the “songs.” We are left with the perennial question of whether or not we should try to interpret such pieces. What are they “about”? Chasny has given them titles, many of which evoke the presence or absence of water: “Above a Desert I’ve Never Seen,” “Brilliant Blue Sea Between Us,” “Saint of Fishermen,” “River of My Youth,” “S/word and Leviathan,” and the floodplain of the album’s title. Chasny has spoken in interviews of being influenced by Gaston Bachelard’s writings on the elements, and references to processes elemental and cosmic have abounded in many of Chasny’s projects.
Of course, we don’t have to make any such connections. But Chasny’s an intellectual guy whose interviews and writings are fascinating to read and who offers us the chance to tune into an meta-musical discourse, a cosmographic network of spirituality, myth, philosophy, and poetry. So when he says, as he does on the otherwise sparse liner notes to Asleep on the Floodplain, that “S/word and Leviathan” is inspired by the work of the postmodern feminist theologian Catherine Keller, we have an open invitation to add another branch to what Harold Shueberg calls “the monolithic Tree of Chasny.”
Chasny doesn’t specify which of Keller’s works, but The Face of the Deep seems a likely contender, with its references to leviathans and, yes, s/words. It’s a book that deconstructs dominant notions of origins and beginnings (most notably, given Keller’s interest, the Bible’s account of Creation) and instead emphasizes process and becoming. Which brings us back, inevitably, to Chasny’s vocal becoming, his denial of obvious song frameworks. At over 12 minutes, “S/word and Leviathan” is by far the longest track on the album, and it seems to start in the middle inasmuch as we are thrown straight into the deep: no gentle lead-in, no obvious opening notes or chords, just a drone-like strumming that exists, without going anywhere. Could this be music as chaos, a softly whispered version of what noise music enacts in its immanence? Other voices enter — shamanic, machinic, human (Ambrogio contributes a ghostly chant, Chasny eventually sings a handful of lines) — and something seems to, if not resolve, at least coalesce. Is this music as creation ritual, as a resonance that we shape into something meaningful as it emerges from the deep?
In a review of SOOA’s Shelter From the Ash in 2007, Ian Penman described that album’s “Alone with the Alone” as a “dialectic of breathy acoustic and jagged electric guitars.” We might think of “S/word and Leviathan” in a similar manner, for here too an electric laceration seems to challenge what has gone before and move it forward. But perhaps dialectic is the wrong way to think of Chasny’s work; perhaps dialectic suggests a teleology that the cosmos itself would deny. Instead, we could follow the suggestion of an earlier SOOA piece, “The Acceptance of Absolute Negation” (from For Octavio Paz), and think of Chasny’s work as one of cyclical return, of interwoven motifs. (This would correspond with another of Penman’s observations — surely correct — that less attention should be paid to Chasny as guitar hero and more to someone who has developed a fascinating “mythopoesis”.)
This, at least, is how I like to hear Six Organs of Admittance: as an invitation to join in a discussion that covers the poetics of place, poststructuralist theology, mysticism, magic, and transformation. Like Harry Smith, another of his influences, Chasny seems open to the interconnectedness of things, to the notion that some kind of key is to be found in these correspondences. As his occasional bandmate Richard Bishop’s former bandmate Charles Gocher once put it, referring to the Sun City Girls’ mix-and-match ritualism, “it’s a different kind of linearity… it’s a commonality with everyone on the face of the earth”. Here, then, are 10 more steps on the path, 10 more keys in the song of life and death.