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For nearly 20 years now, Ben Chasny has been releasing a steady stream of records as Six Organs of Admittance, playing with other bands (Comets on Fire, Rangda) and participating in countless one-off collaborations. But 2015 found the psych-folk guitar hero embarking on a different kind of touring. The two Six Organs album he issued that year—Hexadic and Hexadic II—weren’t just complementary electric/acoustic riffs on the same material. They were also veritable display models for a new, open-source model of composition that Chasny had developed, through specially notated and arranged playing cards. Explaining the concept—known as the Hexadic system—required Chasny to write an accompanying book, issue his own line of cards, draft up diagrams, and maintain an extensive section of related resources on his website. And for added clarity, he even hosted a series of lectures on the subject.
But as much as the Hexadic project seemed to announce a new phase in Chasny’s career, its sheer scope and complexity has, for now at least, had the opposite effect—that is, it’s prompted Chasny to pursue simpler pleasures in his music. With Burning the Threshold, he reverts to the acoustic idyll last heard on 2011’s Asleep on the Floodplain. However, where that melodically-focused record could drift off into oscillating 12-minute odysseys, the new album puts a premium on clarity and concision. Quite simply, this is the warmest, most welcoming, and accessible album in Six Organs’ canon—which may come as a disappointment to fans who prefer Chasny’s more extreme excursions. But for those who first encountered Chasny alongside Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom in 2004-era New Weird America magazine features, and haven’t kept up with his prolific pace, this is the perfect place to rediscover his mesmerizing musicianship and sublime songcraft.
Chasny wrote Burning the Threshold while working on a musical based on the life of Wallace Stevens, and the though the two projects aren’t directly related, the poet’s magic realist approach shaped the album’s thematic framework. Like his participatory approach to promoting Hexadic, Chasny has a way of translating weighty, obtuse ideas from science and theology into pure, easily relatable messaging. On “Things As They Are,” Chasny invokes Stevens’ necessary-angel archetype to meditate on the relationship between natural wonder and human progress. On “Adoration Song,” he becomes possibly the first indie rock artist to namedrop French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in song when he intones, “our friend Gaston says we’re made of lines,” before channeling that sentiment into a jubilant chorus. Over vigorous open-chord strums, he exhorts, “Rise up now!/So Sun softly speaks/Adoration comes from our softened beaks,” transforming the song into an oblique protest anthem at a time when the very concept of compassion feels like it’s under attack by the powers that be.
Though it ranks among Chasny’s most gentle records, Burning the Threshold nonetheless accommodates a large supporting cast of avant-rock all stars who lend these intimately scaled songs a greater dimension. The gorgeous “Under Fixed Stars” takes the hushed intro to the Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile” and spins it out into a mantra, with Damon & Naomi’s hypnotic hums swaddling some of Chasny’s most tender lyrics to date (“I kept your letters inside my sleeve/Between my heart and my hand they breathe”). The instrumental “Around the Axis,” by contrast, sees Chasny squaring off against finger-picking phenom Ryley Walker in a left channel/right channel duel, their tense, tangled interplay blurring the line between harmony and discord. And in the album’s lone act of aggression, “Taken by Ascent,” Chasny busts out his electric to shred overtop a taut, Chris Corsano-powered groove, with haunting guest vocals from Haley Fohr (a.k.a. Circuit Des Yeux) intensifying the song’s ominous thrust.
But that proves to be a fleeting black-could intrusion on an album that otherwise brims with sunrise-summoning optimism, where every glistening guitar pluck seems to shake off the morning dew. Beyond the Threshold hits its rapturous peak on “St. Eustace,” which resembles a Zeppelin III folk jam given a kosmische spin courtesy of Cooper Crain’s splendorous synth drones. The song is named for the second-century Roman warrior who gave himself over to Christianity after seeing a vision of a crucifix hovering between the antlers of the deer he was hunting. Likewise, Beyond the Threshold is a means to coax ecstatic experiences from everyday occurrences—whether through communion with God or just a bottle of Jager.Share