Willie Reviews Six Organs of Admittance’s “For Octavio Paz”

Willie Reviews Six Organs of Admittance’s “For Octavio Paz”



Guitarist Ben Chasny’s acoustic, eternal, and sometimes psychedelic project Six Organs of Admittance originally released For Octavio Paz in 2003. Now, 16 years later, the original cassettes have been remastered and the album has been reissued. It sounds great! For Octavio Paz is still a curious landmark in fingerstyle guitar. It has always had a clear vision of how to straddle the boundaries of folk history, and it continues to impress. Here’s RPM’s review:

Yes, all the fuzz from this album was packed up and carted away. It’s a loss. But now you and I can assess the music stripped of all its dust. I promise you, the music is still there and it is still grand. There will be no Dracula-shrieking-in-the-sun moment upon listening to this lightened remaster. There is no loss of intimacy on this, a solo acoustic guitar record, because it’s the work of one musician shouting into the void, so to speak, and that carries a great power. The decades-long tradition of American primitive guitar can be told as a story of successive singular characters: John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho, Glenn Jones, Jack Rose, Jim O’Rourke, and so on. Their aggressively individualistic natures served them well in the genre, and as much as it is a unified movement, each guitarist is lauded for their points of difference. Ben Chasny recorded For Octavio Paz himself and furthered his own peculiar style in a kind of search for the folk tradition that then and now can appear unintelligible and esoteric.

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So how exactly do you develop your own style separate from your idols? You trace your influences back, and then at some point you break off. It takes years to realize it’s happened, but inevitably it does. The style Chasny most emphasizes on the album is the devotional strain of American primitivism—the kind with 18-minute tracks (“The Acceptance of Absolute Negation”), a thousand pull-offs, and continuous pedal tones that keep a drone (this should come as no surprise as it’s called Six Organs of Admittance, not Six Violas or Clarinets!). I call it devotional because it’s the sound of Basho’s most expansive works of religious mysticism and Sandy Bull’s psychedelic jams. Even Steffen Basho-Junghans uses the same style for long nature pieces. To identify it the opposite way, it’s often unlike Fahey’s buttoned-up compositions that offer repeatability and sense-making. The cover art of For Octavio Paz even looks like a shy version of Fahey’s Requia. Both sit with their guitar in front of a house, but where Fahey sits awkwardly in the daylight, Chasny is hidden in shadows and slumped over his instrument. They seek to reveal different kinds of truths.

That being said, Chasny does include a number of short, neat, cyclical compositions. However, there is a constant energy that seeks freedom from those. “Elk River” has a theme that returns again and again, but it often trails off or stops to explore some nearby musical territory. It’s unsure in its footing, vulnerable in the exploration of its development. Both the willingness to try this and the ability to include two conflicting styles of playing on one album are what separate Chasny from his influences. It ends up with a grand, cyclical style. The way the two impulses, organized and disorganized, fit together is by recognizing the raw power in a good fingerstyle hook and isolating it. Whether that means breaking it down harmonically (as in the long meditations) or sitting on it with unequal phrases (as in the shorter tracks), the central thrust is the same. It’s a very patient kind of playing.

Ben Chasny, photo from Billions

The actual tunes included on the album are subject to the same kind of philosophical split, but what’s included seems to be motivated by the feeling of missing the folk boat. Coming in sometimes a hundred years after a folk standard’s birth, you have to deal mostly with what’s left in its wake. Picking up a standard like “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home” carries an impossible history with it. Because of this, Chasny’s take on folk and blues standards starts with a similarly old-fashioned title that he crafts into something appropriately abstract and hard to define. “When You Finally Return” features a disembodied voice singing over a mournful tune in a way that describes the moment of return and the wailing that accompanies the anticipation thereof. It becomes an obsession, and you hear it in the fingers tugging the strings. The muddied sound sends it back in time. “Elk River” then describes a place that may never have been or maybe really was. For the sake of the song, it matters not.

But for many of Chasny’s compositions, imitating a long-lost folk spirit is not enough. He sets up explicit images that are entirely his own and which spell out in detail their narrative qualities. Both “Fire On Rain” and “Rain On Fire” tell loud stories in a hushed whisper. The former is large and looming, while the latter rings out in its extinguishing bliss. “Memory, Memory, Memory” is a definite highlight, as the guitar mimes the action of remembering. Like fumbling through the woods or remembering the last time you remembered, it reveals the reality of most acts of memory—imprecise and desperate. It does all this with a deep, repeating guitar line. “They Fixed the Broken Windmill Today” is a satisfying odyssey that comes from an unexpected situation, describing the act of observation through an account of one time in a place unknown. Perhaps the broken windmill was fixed, and perhaps not. In any case, it’s good that this reissue has such a lack of finality. Six Organs of Admittance has deep roots and the ability to continue to surprise now and a hundred years down the line.

Score: Are there elk swimming in Elk River, or is it just a name?

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