With the new Uncut out tomorrow, it just occurred to me that I’d forgotten to post this review from the last issue. I did at least put up the full transcript of my email exchange with Ben Chasny, which you can check out by following this link. “Ascent” is on sale now, by the way.
It isn’t, in all honesty, the most canonical and secure of musical judgments. Nevertheless, there is a small cabal of rock fans who will argue all day that a Santa Cruz five-piece called Comets On Fire were one of the great bands of the early 21st Century. Between 2001 and 2006, and over four albums of incrementally rising fidelity, the Comets mastered a hybrid of West Coast psychedelia, hardcore, white noise, classic rock and fever dream sci-fi. “Forward-thinking motherfuckers,” noted an admiring Julian Cope, transfixed by their savagery around the time of 2002’s second album, Field Recordings From The Sun.
Around that time, too, Comets On Fire fell in with a guitarist called Ben Chasny, who was making brackish, witchy psych-folk on his own as Six Organs Of Admittance. Initially, Comets were engaged as the backing band for a putative Six Organs release. Soon enough, though, the sessions were aborted. Chasny would continue to release Six Organs records, but his relationship with Comets On Fire had changed: he had also become one of them.
Perpetually distracted by their other projects, Comets dissolved sometime after 2006’s Avatar, with frontman Ethan Miller focusing on the brawny orthodoxies of his other band, Howlin Rain. Since then, Chasny has persisted with an adventurous career on the margins, as both an inveterate collaborator (notably with a fractious leftfield power trio, Rangda) and as the meditative Six Organs. It now seems he has decided to tie up some loose ends, too. The supporting players on Ascent, the 13th album released by Chasny under the Six Organs brand, are his old comrades from Comets On Fire: more experienced, steered by Chasny’s vision rather than their collective mania, but no less potent and exciting.
Chasny is predominantly known as an acoustic player, with a style that is rooted in the folk ragas of Robbie Basho and Peter Walker, but privileges fervour and caprice, an unruly imagination, over doughty virtuosity. When he switches to electric, his songs often lock into swirling patterns and spiritual drones, orbiting around songforms that take the form of distant muttered incantations. Those frail melodies remain, but Ascent plays down the cyclical scrabbling. “A Thousand Birds” and “Close To The Sky” were both essayed during the doomed 2002 sessions (which Ethan Miller has made available at his blog, www.silvercurrant.blogspot.co.uk) before turning up in acoustic form on Six Organs’ Dark Noontide (2002) and Compathia (2003). Here, though, Utrillo Kushner (drums) and Ben Flashman (bass) wander into dogged Crazy Horse grooves, leaving Miller (a reverbed constant in the right channel) and Noel Von Harmonson to provide simmering guitar backup, and Chasny to fly untethered over the top.
His solos may spit, writhe and yank the songs into new shapes, but Chasny is an unusually egoless player. For all the extensive fireworks, his style feels more punkish and exploratory than mere showboating: witness the doubled-up shredding that cuts a swathe through “Even If You Knew” (another tune retrieved from the 2002 batch), its fuzzy pulse related to the Doors’ “Five To One”.
The strongest echo of Comets On Fire’s old work comes on the opening “Waswasa”, an overdriven belt-buckle boogie (in which Kushner, as Cope once put it, “is sometimes two drummers [who] both think they are Keith Moon.”) that recalls one of their more streamlined tracks, “Sour Smoke” (2006). Mostly, though, Ascent sounds like Chasny channelling a great band’s alchemical powers to his own ends, in the process making what may turn out to be a highpoint in his already rich and complex career.
It adds, too, a pleasing new chapter to one of rock’s less celebrated cult stories, even if we should be wary of overplaying the sentimentality. In “Close To The Sky”, Chasny’s mammoth and elaborate solo is eventually tamed by a beautifully jangling acoustic line, which you’d initially assume to be an intuitive contribution by Miller. The idea of a mythical jam is a romantic one but, ultimately, Ascent is a Six Organs record. The acoustic guitar, it transpires, is an overdub added by Chasny himself, finessing his masterpiece long after the reunion sessions are over.
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