Six Organs of Admittance
Six Organs of Admittance play Portland, February 16th, 2008
It was an uncharacteristically dry President's Day weekend in Portland, Oregon, and I was hosting a crew of friends who had come to visit from LA, the Bay area, and my former home of Salt Lake City. It had been a while since we had all been in the same town together, and we were appropriately wasted off of a hefty amount of inappropriate booze (Goldschlager and Hamm's). It wasn't hard to convince my guests, light and impressionable as 17 year old prom dates, to forgo the usual Portland fare—giant bookstores, strip clubs, rose gardens—for the blistering ear assault that is Six Organs of Admittance.
They played The Doug Fir, a trendy bar in south east Portland that feels like it was built by a gang of hipster lumberjacks trying to recreate The Shining's Overlook Hotel. Ben Chasny, the noisemaker behind such acts as Comets on Fire and the mastermind behind SOA, took the stage before a quietly filled house. If there was a whisper in the room, within seconds of Chasny's first song it was hushed.
Chasny is, amongst other things, a masterful musician. His delicate acoustic finger picking flows and explores the whole neck of the guitar, thundering rapidly in a Devendra Banhart-style finger-fuck, only to gently retreat into tricky yet eloquent riffs that sound as effortless as those of Nick Drake. Without having seen them live, one could listen to one of their better albums, let's say School of the Flower, and wonder how much of the sound is studio manipulated, or at least edited for narrative effect. Listen to a studio recording of SOA and notice the abrupt tempo changes, or the ease and immediacy with which songs transition. In the cases of other bands, these details would seem arbitrary, the results of an engineer who is at least half awake and a band that is at least half-practiced. In the case of SOA, however, the live performance displays the subtleties of song that are not only intentional, but necessary. At one point, playing solo, Chasny finished a song, abruptly detuned his E string, and began the next song with literally one beat since the last. At another point, his acoustic guitar had created a gentle ambient noise flowing over the melody, perhaps subtle enough for some not to have noticed. The fact that it was intentional became clear when his disarming voice chimed in, harmonized not with the chords his fingers were plucking but with the swelling overtones from his amplifier. These connections—the chaos of noise to the sturdiness of musicianship, the charged and passionate to the controlled and eloquent—are what make an SOA show such an impossibly unique experience.
Anyone who knows SOA or Comets on Fire knows that Chasny is a noisy beast, and these nuances, as precious as they are, are never safe from loud, electrically driven onslaughts. Even in his sweetest and least noisy, his blissed out folk melodies are undermined by a repetitive, rich, and ominous baseline—somehow warning the casual listener of the impending eardrum slaughter just around the corner. In an age where Pro Tools has replaced the synthetic vagina as the most popular product with which to masturbate, the difference between an SOA show and album is only that the latter is mixed down, so as not to explode the shitty door speakers in your Civic.
Onstage, this would be the moment in which Chasny's acoustic guitar, still gently screaming between itself and the amplifier, is set down, and his bandmate, the beautiful but vicious Elisa Ambrosio, joins him onstage. They both pick up electrics, and any chance us Portland show-goers have of hearing the superfluous things we have to say to each other goes out the window.
As much as I loved seeing Chasny alone and understated in the first half of the show, it was the second half that had me mind-fucked, and had my very capacity for hearing dragged across the room along with some of the most ruthless sound waves I've ever heard.
Some crouched in the corner, hands stuck firmly to their ears, while others ran to the bar in the back, hoping to drink the sound away. Those of us who stayed close to the stage were wondering why we'd forgotten our ear plugs for the umpteenth time, and I can say for myself that I won't forget them again.
Anchored to Chasny's beautiful melodies, Ambrosio destroyed the neck of her guitar, using her slide as if she were driving a zamboni through a pee-wee hockey team. Staying in key, her seemingly chaotic playing was able to soar above Chasny's light, repetitious, and almost academically driven riffs. Imagine Beethoven playing alongside a stoner noise-jockey, his ear faithfully to the ground, conducting the folk amplifications like a symphony that speaks of disaffection and the death of folk. Then, just when you didn't think you could take any more, a simple, truthful note bounces angrily between your ears, only to escape into the ventilation shaft. Then you go home and try to do something nice for your ear drums—like, oh, I don't know, listening to wind chimes or something.