Local songwriter Ben Chasny admits that he often creates from the headspace of "Everything is kinda fucked; let's write a song about it."
Despite working on fingerpicked themes in the tradition of steel-string players like John Fahey and Robbie Basho, Chasny's work as Six Organs of Admittance isn't placid by any means. Instead, his guitar has battled against a backdrop of drones, moans, Tibetan bells, and tape hiss. His sound is schizophrenic, rooted in folk yet full of fury, beatific but turbid.
That said, the title track to Six Organs' latest release, Shelter from the Ash, is his most harrowing and apocalyptic song to date. Inspired by the bleak works of French cultural theorist Paul Virilio and abetted by Comets on Fire's Noel Harmonson on drums and producer Tim Green, "Shelter from the Ash" feels at once fiery and suffocated. It could be Six Organs' most overt classic rock song, save that it never fully combusts. "Maybe it's just some sadistic thing, making people swallow a little bit of dirt," Chasny says of the curious patina of organ and acoustic guitar that keeps the music from an easy payoff. The Six Organs mastermind adds that Shelter is also more "specific in its meanings" than listeners are used to. Its roiling and seething noise is tempered by some of his most lucid songwriting as he addresses themes ranging from bloodshed to spirituality.
On "Strangled Road," Chasny croons over an austere backdrop about the invisible forces that run this world. In the tradition of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" or Eugene McDaniels' "Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse," the song is a trenchant perception of that lucrative business of war for profit. Joined by Superwolf's Matt Sweeney on guitar and Magik Markers' frontwoman Elisa Ambrogio echoing the words, Chasny sings of this unnamed cabal "waiting to kiss your skull/They may even eat the horse that you're riding/Swallow this whole world whole."
"Strangled Road" is Chasny's most overt political statement on record. But the sentiment isn't simply that he's had enough of the powers that be. "It is a bit more specific politically; it's a bit personal, too," he says, hesitating a moment before adding, "I've been getting a lot closer with my dad lately. He's a vet. A lot of that political stuff that went in [the album] was from the personal aspect, [more from] talking with my dad than actually sitting down in front of the news." In the booklet accompanying Shelter from the Ash, Chasny lists the URL for Veterans for Peace, www.veteransforpeace.org. "You can look at statistics, but then you really see firsthand what [war] does to an individual," he says, citing the high number of soldiers who return from wars with the scars of post-traumatic stress disorder. "I realized how that affects me and my relationships. Even people that so-called 'survive,' it's ... just fucked."
Warmongers aren't the only unseen forces influencing Chasny's songwriting this time. The instrumental "Goddess Atonement" is dedicated to the surviving members of Seattle experimentalists Sun City Girls, whose drummer, Charles Gocher, passed away from cancer earlier this year. The track isn't simply an homage to the band, it's also a paean to a deity Chasny had the misfortune of crossing. "One of the Sun City Girls drew my attention to ... a certain goddess," he says. "A higher power." He initially shrugged off their instructions to pay proper tribute when toasting drinks and the like. That is, until "crazy stuff" started happening. "It culminated [when] I ended up brushing my teeth with bleach by accident," Chasny says. "I ended up throwing up, and I just went, 'That's it, that's it! This whole song! This whole day, I'm sorry!'" He placated the vindictive deity with his music as sacrifice.
Before he was soothing spirits in song, Chasny began putting his steely acoustic guitar ruminations to four-track back in 1998. He crafted his loner recordings nestled among the redwoods of Arcata, separate from his gig in the raucous noise-rock band Plague Lounge. He privately pressed up Six Organs of Admittance records and — as he told me once — "couldn't even give them away." Some were on etched vinyl, others were lathe cuts, all in extremely limited editions.
Pigeonholed as a popular underground steel-string player by the end of the 1990s, Chasny joined forces with the mighty Comets on Fire as second guitarist and ditched both the acoustic and the four-track, heading into a proper studio to record his Drag City debut, 2005's free-jazz-infused School of the Flower. And while he copped to 2006's The Sun Awakens being Six Organs' "heavy metal record," the new album no longer feels beholden to its influences; rather, the latent intensity of previous efforts reaches a pinnacle.
Chasny has grown increasingly confident in both his singing and his reflective songwriting, though one song in particular came back to haunt him. "After I wrote 'Shelter from the Ash,' I ended up having one of the most horrific nightmares ever," he says. "I had a dream that the Moon was hit by this asteroid. ... I could look out and see this sand covering the Earth, coming closer. And I looked at my mom and said, 'Don't worry, Mom, it's just like Pompeii.' And right then the sand hit us and I died."
Whether it's the Four Horsemen or the horse-eaters of the apocalypse, Six Organs of Admittance continues to soundtrack our generation's end-times.