Those looking for blissful or unsettling drone-folk should turn back now. Ascent contains no long-form acoustic improvisations, no noisy abstract epics, no haunting ballads (well, maybe one). In their place is a blistering assault of face-melting solos, heavy psych riffage, and vocals soaring above it all. Ben Chasny’s guitar work on Ascent is some of his most immediately impressive to date, and with his backing compatriots from Comets on Fire, Chasny climbs the stairways that lead to the summits of psychedelia, pausing only briefly to address the spirits before completing his ascent.
All this noise makes for an excellent genre piece, but a significantly less personal album. The emotional power of the alluded-to ballad “Your Ghost” positively disarms the listener in light of the rest of Ascent, where the majority of the exciting content consists of guitar fireworks. This movement toward explosive sonics and away from the inner light is nowhere more apparent than on centerpiece “One Thousand Birds,” a reworking of a Six Organs of Admittance classic, which in the original version is easily one of Chasny’s best songs. Sure, the original featured an overdriven, wah-pedal freakout too, but in its place on Dark Noontide, the solo came as a surprise. Here, the mid-tempo rock reworking feels drained of the tension of the original and instead treads the well-worn path of psych-rock anthem. That’s not to suggest that “One Thousand Birds” is worse for the transformation. It feels like a brand new song, with a wholly different set of values both in the song’s structure and in its emotive force. “Close to the Sky” is a reworking too, but the contrast between the two versions is less severe, and so the value shift appears less drastic. It’s an especially successful update in that it imbues the song with a new life, generating a new layer of complexity and instrumentation while still doing justice to the feel of the original.
Were it not for Chasny’s unmistakable vocal timbre, it’d be hard to convince me that Ascent isn’t a new Comets on Fire album. It’s not quite as noisy as Blue Cathedral, but the same techniques manifest here. The titular ascent occurs not through calm meditation and internal exploration, but through external fire and anxious speed. This is not a revelation of the indwelling of spirit, but an attempt to take heaven by storm. Chasny’s jet-fighter guitar is his siege engine, launching volley after volley of missiles at the pearly gates. In an interview with Wired, Chasny suggests that the album has a “pretty heavy gnostic sci-fi element.” He hasn’t abandoned the enlightening side of his music; it has just taken the form of a battle, a sort of sonic king-of-the-hill against the archons that hold the hypostasis of the world in their sway. Ascent climbs many mountains, and though Chasny and Comets on Fire may not have unseated the demiurge, this is a solid set of space rock that will melt plenty of faces, even though it doesn’t seek nirvana in Six Organs of Admittance’s usual ways.