Tier 3

music / / poetry / / philosophy / / -ology by Nick Courtright

Album Review: Six Organs of Admittance’s Shelter from the Ash

Say you like to meditate. Say you like to sit in a room and think real hard and then not think at all. Say you like a little sound in the background to help keep that head of yours on straight. Say you don’t mind some vocals, but not too many, some jangling now-it’s-folksy/now-it’s-noodling guitar, maybe a dash of sometimes- shimmery/sometimes-bombastic drumming to toy with your heart rate. Say you pop in the new Six Organs of Admittance album, expecting to get exactly what you’re looking for. Say you find something that upsets the Big Mind just a little more than you wanted.

And that’s how Shelter from the Ash, due next Tuesday from Drag City, shakes expectations. By relying on Ben Chasny’s guitar and comforting (though spare) vocals to craft subtle, beautiful, and haunting ragas, Six Organs has developed a fine reputation as a western band in touch with eastern musical roots—though their sound is often referred to as “psychedelic,” the more appropriate term is “contemplative.” And Six Organs of Admittance, despite that troubling mouthful of a name, have used their unmistakably thoughtful sound to produce a satisfying LP every year for the past six years, and while Shelter from the Ash follows in those albums’ footsteps, it walks slightly outside their sonic and thematic similarities and into something a bit uneven.

With the help of a small army of guest stars, including Matt Sweeney (of Superwolf and Zwan fame) and members of Comets on Fire and Magic Markers, Shelter from the Ash creates a sense of dispossession and paranoia, framing disturbing squall with simple melodies to create a work more uneasy than what you’d expect from this band. The album’s undoubted center and strong point is the throttling seven-minute anthem “Coming to Get You,” which—after a gentle yet cautionary two minute intro—builds into one of Six Organs’ most ferocious works. With its foreboding lyrics and a jarring drum beat rarely found in Chasny’s work, the song stands out spectacularly from the rest of the album, which features only minimal percussion and few rock trappings. But it is in this disparity that one of Shelter from the Ash’s most glaring weaknesses is discovered: that, compared to “Coming to Get You,” the album’s other songs, though often rewarding in and of themselves, feel far too subtle.

Album touchstone “Jade like Wine” is more indicative of the typical Six Organs sound, as is the title track and opener “Alone with the Alone”—these are songs more suited for sitting lotus-style in a dark closet, or for being spiritually agitated. But these tracks, while intricately-crafted and perhaps even jazz-influenced, are not up to the standard set by similar approaches on previous albums, nor up to the energetic standard set by “Coming to Get You.” This fact, plus the record’s unambitious conclusion—trailing off with no sense of resolution, closure, or even a good question as to what could come next—leave the set begging for more time in the studio.

When a band—or, in this case, a man and whatever friends he has hanging around—has been extremely solid for a long time, it’s difficult to adequately judge new work without unfairly comparing it to past albums. But at face value this is the second Six Organs of Admittance album in a row that seems pale and perhaps even unfinished compared to the more consistently passionate music to be found on earlier works such as School of the Flower or Dark Noontide. And this isn’t to say that Shelter from the Ash isn’t a good album, because it certainly has its fine moments, but it is to say that if you had to buy just one Six Organs album, it would be wise to dip a further back in the discography.

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