December 08, 2003

Six Organs of Admittance "Compathia"

Sebadoh/Sentridoh guru Lou Barlow once remarked that he preferred to record his acoustic compositions on four-track because four-tracks are able to capture the rich overtones of an alternately tuned acoustic guitar better than a professional studio recording could. After listening to the latest album by Six Organs of Admittance, I can’t help but agree with him. Ben Chasny, the lone ranger behind the Six Organs moniker, uses acoustic instruments almost exclusively on this record. The excessive midrange and compression that most four-track recording suffers from actually bring out the tonal richness of his guitar. It also helps that Chasny is a guitar player of almost virtuoso-like status, picking out fast flurries of notes in vaguely Middle Eastern scales whenever the fancy strikes him. Vocally, his range is limited, but through multi-tracking his voice he gives his deep trembling croon added resonance.

Most of the songs on this record are just Ben’s guitar and voice, with light jangling percussion behind him and the occasional keyboard. The percussion makes the already arid and mystical music sound as if Ben’s being followed by a band of gypsies in the desert. The first time you hear a sitar pop up on “Somewhere Between,” it may shock you. On subsequent listens, though, the only thing that’s shocking about it is that it’s the ONLY song on the album that a sitar appears on. The closest reference point I can think of is Illyah Kuryahkin, but with more assertive singing and without Kuryahkin’s usual onslaught of fuzz guitars.

Chasny also has a gift for writing lyrics that are genuinely vague and open-ended, as opposed to the nonsensical BS that many writers excrete. You hear many of them claim to leave their lyrics “open to interpretation” in order to mask their laziness. When Ben sings, “You have gone astray…you can come back, but not on this day,” the effect is different. You don’t know HOW the antagonist has strayed, and you don’t know exactly when Chasny will let him/her come back. You do, however, feel sorry for whomever Ben’s singing about. “Hum a Silent Prayer” is even more ominous. With little more than his voice and a slowly emerging keyboard drone, Ben urges the listener to “take all your sacred words away; we’ve already changed everything that they say.” It’s a stark denial of religion that could have served as a perfect ending to the album…

…if it weren’t for the eighth and final song, “Only the Sun Knows.” Granted, every song on Compathia is repetitive, but at least the other songs have the decency to wrap things up before the six-minute mark. “Only the Sun Knows” goes on and on for eleven minutes, and is marred by some awful guitar playing. Chasny isn’t as good at slide guitar as he is at finger picking, and Ethan Miller’s “electric destruction guitar” solo (as the CD’s liner notes refer to it) doesn’t work well with the song at all. Music this placid and hypnotic shouldn’t be ruined by jarring blasts of noise. Chasny dedicates this album to “all those who have trouble sleeping at night,” but I don’t think this song would cure them of their insomnia. If this song were removed, Compathia would have made a near-perfect EP. As it stands that, it’s just a pretty good album. Thank God for the “program” button on my CD player.

---Sean Padilla

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