The runaway ghost train that is "New Weird America" has a made a lot of noise over the past year. Artists like No-Neck Blues Band, Charalambides, and Sunburned Hand of the Man have been pretty strange for over five years now, but the rest of us are finally starting to catch up, realizing the reverence due to railblazers like Arthur Doyle and Caroliner and imagining what Harry Smith would say if he ever heard Wolf Eyes. The amorphous vibrato of free folk seems to be coalescing into a discernible movement with scary potential and, what’s more amazing, it’s gotten this far without succumbing to explanation.
That’s a stretch of course, but the English language has never been of real concern to a group of artists more inclined to go with the flow than stop and write things down. Improvisation is probably the uniting factor amidst this cluster of noise freaks and six-string troubadours; the idea of listening to each other without instruction and relaying truths through consonance, not consonants.
That’s why Compathia, the new album from Six Organs of Admittance, is so surprising. Ben Chasny, whose largely meditative Dark Noontide proved a major launching pad for this New Weird sound, has toned down the drone and made what is essentially a pop record. It retains the Eastern tinge of past recordings, but Chasny’s voice, and furthermore his lyrics, separate this from anything he’s done before.
Compathia, which Chasny recorded and produced himself in his home between February 2002 and March 2003, won’t be confused with the saccharine of Belle and Sebastian or The Shins, but there’s no mistaking the intent. There are hooks here, albeit of the cave wall variety, and the songs are centered around Chasny’s oracle chants. Of the eight songs on Compathia, seven feature his voice prominently, with only the brief title track unfolding sans lyrics. The opening “Close to the Sky” virtually bursts out of the gate compared to past Admittance albums, repeating a catchy, upbeat guitar phrase that doesn’t stop until the song ends three minutes later. Meanwhile, Chasny exalts “I never knew anything could exist without you” in time with the rhythm. Different percussion instruments take turns playing with the song’s intensity, but the guitar never strays from its path. It wouldn’t sound all that surprising if tangential drift wasn’t such a huge ingredient in past Six Organs albums.
While it’s not as easy to get lost in Compathia, there’s no real need to. What it lacks in transcendence, it makes up in timelessness. These vague and archaic lyrics have an eternal appeal to them, as if Chasny is channeling some omniscient deity and turning his arcane messages into floor-stomping mantras like “Close to the Sky” and “Only the Sun Knows”, which features Ethan Miller of Comets on Fire on “electric destruction guitar” in one of the single best cameos of 2003. Compathia, like every other Six Organs of Admittance record, exudes a quasi-spirituality, especially on “Somewhere Between”, the closest the album gets to Dark Noontide’s gentle journeys beyond the space-time continuum.
Unafraid to put into words what he’s been hearing in his head for the past five years, Chasny’s Compathia is a unique addition to the New Weird America, and possibly the most reminiscent yet of the original guard – an assortment of raga-blues for the temple and the front porch. It goes to show that while you can’t always render the mysteries of the universe in a few simple words, sometimes you can.
By Otis Hart