Somewhere along Highway One, between the glittery excess of Los Angeles and the pretentious art-houses of San Francisco, some sort of transformation takes place. For being so geographically close, the two towns — and the art they inspire — could not be more different. Are we to believe that if a teenage Axl Rose had ditched the Indiana suburbs for San Francisco instead of L.A., Guns N’ Roses might’ve been a hash-smoking folk-rock band? That Appetite for Destruction’s artwork would’ve featured the sanguine tones of Six Organs of Admittance’s School of the Flower instead of the now-infamous robo-rape cartoon?
Forgive the misleading introduction: The new Six Organs record does not, in any way, bring to mind G N’ R. It exemplifies the best of Northern California’s fertile folk scene. Ben Chasny, the mastermind behind Six Organs of Admittance, has been mixing psychedelic excess and soft acoustics for nearly a decade now. The recent attention paid to “freak-folk” artists like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, as well as East coast troublemakers Animal Collective, has revived interest in Chasny’s work.
Despite the associations, the word folk, which implies a structure and traditionalism foreign to Chasny’s music, is barely applicable to School of the Flower. Instead of its sound, Chasny borrows folk’s elemental mysticism and smears it liberally over the eight tracks here. Chasny constructs an intriguing paradox, burying his guitar in the red earth and sending his sonic freakouts skyward.
Chasny buoys all of his experiments with simple, though not uninteresting, nylon-string guitar beds. He sings occasionally, using his high tenor to add texture to the compositions. More intriguing are his noisy guitar jabs, which salt the songs with everything from far-East drone (“Saint Cloud”) to astral warmth (“Home”). On the 13-minute title track, Chasny’s recent work with Northwestern guitar monsters Comets on Fire shines through. Jazz drums try to eat up a simple, repeated acoustic guitar riff before an ornery electric rips the song’s second half to shreds.
On “Thicker than Smokey,” Chasny covers mysterious early ’70s folksinger Gary Higgins, whose whereabouts are still, to this day, unknown. It is, not surprisingly, the album’s most structured cut, employing a whimsical melody and sparse strumming. The closest Chasny comes to this type of straightforwardness by himself is the sweetly brief “Words for Two.” Chasny’s voice rises from a dull chant, mutters the title of the song, and fades back into the ether.
It’s these sort of charming apparitions that keep School of the Flower above water. Music this formless often teeters into indecent experimentalism, but Chasny’s presence humanizes the record, pulling it back from the brink of self-indulgence.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars