LIKE all of us, I guess, Ben Chasny, the man behind the psychedelic guitar explorers Six Organs of Admittance, is a person of many facets; forget the personal here, we’re concerned with the musical.
There’s the more carefree, garagey Ben we’ve seen laying down frayed and wholly lovable tunes, sometimes teetering on the edge of collapse, at others classy alt.country in a Gene Clark manner, alongside Donovan Quinn over the course of two New Bums records (and why not catch up with their album from earlier this year, Last Time I Saw Grace, which we reviewed here?).
And then there’s the Ben of Six Organs of Admittance, which has two sides, broadly speaking: the more exotically scented, hard psych incantations such as “Waswasa” from 2012’s Ascents; and then a more pastoral but deeply mysterious evocation of innerspace, created with a mastery and fluidity of the acoustic guitar that draws on folk from both sides of the Atlantic, blues, raga, more; as you can hear on “Exultation Wave”, from Hexadic II.
Obviously there’s shades and nuances and points along that spectrum where Ben alights as his massive talent takes him; Discogs lists no less than 31 albums under the Six Organs Of Admittanc attribution, a helluva catalogue to dive into (my personal favourite so far, for what it’s worth? 2011’s Asleep On The Floodplain).
What is perhaps under-represented in the canon as it stands, and especially given Ben’s exploratory mastery of the guitar, is an album of acoustic guitar instrumentals, wholly, thus venturing somewhat towards the Jack Rose/ Cameron Knowler / William Tyler area of practice. In fact there’s only the one, 2004’s lovely For Octavia Paz. first issued on Portland’s tiny Time-Lag imprint and since reissued by Ben himself. That essaying in this particular field is all we’ve had.
Until now, of course.
Because the legendary library music imprint KPM, the really deep crate-diggers’ and breaks-unearthers’ label, offered Ben the opportunity to come lay down some work for its catalogue. And of course, he said yes; thus joining not only guitar genius predecessor John Renbourn, of Pentangle, but names such as Delia Derbyshire, in the KPM canon.
He chose, first of all, to record as himself rather than beneath the Six Organs masque; he also chose to target an acoustic guitar aesthetic that was present, intimate, beautiful, using all that craft and fluidity and melodic nous which makes his playing such an enthralling listen. Simple, then, but true, from the heart; not a detached music, a music of the flesh and the wood and the string engaged together. It’s relaxed, up close; with just a little, sparing overdub, wordless harmonising and a sprinkling of synth to flesh things out as required.
And how is it? Instrumentals of any stripe are open to emotional interpretation, natch, but Ben’s titling of the tracks herein offers simple but pure picture-paintings of where we might be in these songs. Some tell tales which beg a back story, such as “Last Night to Use the Telescope,” and “On the Way to the Coast” – hey, maybe tell them after a few listens; others, more psychogeographical snapshots – “Dust In The Ravine”, “Circular Road”, “Waterfall Path”; yet others concerned with the more astral or fantastical, such as “Water Dragon.” “Star Cascade,” ”Second Moon”.
Sure, you say. All conceptually inviting. But: how do they sound?
Well, placing the needle on this particular slab of wax, “The Many Faces Of Stone” is a bright cheerleader and lays out the guitar aesthetics that will abide throughout the record: warm and instantly lovable; big on the complex, fluid fingerstyle, big too on the open, ringing bass, here with an out-west feel and the most flowing of higher register melodies, packed with trills and hammer-ons and the like. In this opener he seems to be giving notice of intent to the new breed of guitar soli that are coming through: here’s what I can do, when asked.
The story painted by “Last Night To Use The Telescope” is that of a fluid, folksy run, chiming bass notes and a bluegrassy feel. There’s a beautiful warmth to the strings dropping into a minor arpeggio before once again resolving up into major melody. Where are you? I’m atop a hilltop above the treeline in the blues of a summer dusk, ready to observe.
“Waterfall Path” has a more frontiersman clustering and pausing, extended melody runs gaining open country beyond the stern bass ring and summoning a calm rural landscape. In a similar vein, “Six Diamonds” has an Appalachian beauty, lifted further by the colour of simple, vamping organ touches.
“Cross-Winged Formation” draws on a pastoral, almost trad.arr. lineage of song-strands, but weaves it with a harmonic understanding and a loose, light playing approach seemingly coming in from the raga. In the same vein “Water Dragon” is a hoedown of hammered-on bass notes, a backwoods porch raga, music from some long lost tale of the west, Ben’s voice a distant hum of those lost before. Deliciously haunting, there’s a scene in a Kelly Reichardt film yet to be made that this awaits. I mean, don’t you think?
“Star Cascade” arpeggios away with the understanding of an adept, a river of six strings flowing away and beckoning you around the next oxbow; punctuations on the on-beat lending a chiming, clocklike feel, an anchor in that liquid playing. “Circular Road” sees Ben really show off how to trill folksy beauty with the understanding of a classical player, finger squeak and cascades of plain, honest-to-god, unadorned prettiness.
“Where Have All the Summers Gone?” asks that question in taut bass motifs, joined by more plaintive runs higher up the scale. You can hear every contact, the strings struck with percussiveness, the living, breathing instrument. And I tell you who this track most reminds me of, and that’s Felt’s Maurice Deebank, particularly around Poem Of The River.
If “Second Moon” is a music for some off-world, it’s again more a homespun, hardscrabble settlers’ milieu – think the tales of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. That second moon rises high above a yearning fancy, the tiniest dose of synth out back to tease out harmony as Ben winds a tale of fantasy or dream or fable in ringing bass strings, masterful fingerstyle liquidity. Hey: play it yourself, just below there.
You conclude with “On The Way To The Coast”: a bright, sliding odyssey in which layers of Ben’s guitar sing tight harmony before heading out on their own cresting waves.
The Intimate Landscape is more than just an intriguing excursion into library music, although it has that layer of functionality too; it’s a simple, almost rustic record of fantastical tales and incredible guitar styles, but so harmonically complex. It’s got warmth; in plain speaking, ma’am, it’s just really very pretty, and why ask any more than that?
Aesthetically, it’s perched somewhere between the more formally proscribed, purer ragtime works of Jack Rose and the fluid awe of Raag Manifestos. My partner, for her ten pence, said: “I could listen to this all day.” If Eli Winter and John Fahey, William Tyler and Gwenifer Raymond are icons in your personal pantheon, then this record you oughta own; are gonna love spending time with.