Although the psych-folk project predates Ben Chasny’s involvement with Comets on Fire, Six Organs of Admittance has occasionally been viewed as a side project, a subtler supplement to the guitarist’s key role in the squealing six-string meltdowns favoured by the legendarily cacophonous San Francisco psych-rockers.
With Comets on Fire on what looks worryingly like a permanent hiatus whilst singer/guitarist Ethan Miller focuses on Howlin’ Rain’s boogie-greased retro-rock, the band’s fans must look elsewhere for their in-the-red fix. Featuring a band every bit as potent as you’d expect one with Comets on Fire personnel to be, Ascent provides the ideal solution from a somewhat unexpected direction.
Six Organs of Admittance “going electric” isn’t exactly a shock: the acoustic epics on past albums have often been spiced up by outbreaks of amp abuse, and there have been live shows with a full band. In the studio, however, Six Organs have recently resided ever more doggedly on contemplative – read: occasionally drowsy – terrain, with Chasny’s mythical/mystical musings tending to stick to folk-raga templates. As such, the ease with which Ascent’s opening instrumental (well, nearly: the occasional grunting chant manages to raise its head above the dense layers of high-octane riff action) ‘Waswasa’ locates the molten-lava centre of psych-rock Valhalla comes as a thrilling surprise. Essentially an extended procession of grizzled axe worship set to a brutal garage rock stomp, it’s hard to elevate this type of speed limit-battering simplicity into genuinely compelling heights. The track’s atavistic high octane assault excels in its mission to – for want of a more original term – rock, and rock hard: it’s unlikely there’ll be a more exciting cut of primitive raw power unleashed this year.
Wisely, Ascent doesn’t have a go at scaling this level of intensity again. After all, lightning doesn’t tend to strike twice in the same spot. Instead, the album treks into more nuanced, song-based territory. Ascent is a fitting title: the album’s defining feature is extended guitar solos that climb ever higher on the fretboard in a fruitful search of the perfect symbiosis of soaring melody and feedback-encrusted white noise. There are tranquil moments here as well (check out the wistful sigh of closer ‘Visions (from IO)’), but many of the album’s songs come across as excuses to unleash yet another salute to the earth-trembling potential of electric guitar. That they do this whilst being as substantial as ‘Close to the Sky’, a downcast lament for things that have been lost, set to a loping gait that will immediately win over fans of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and the uncharacteristically robust – if not downright funky – ‘A Thousand Birds’, makes Ascent the most satisfying Six Organs… album since the apocalyptic vibes of 2007’s Shelter from the Ash, if not ever.