Six Organs of Admittance – School of the Flower

Six Organs of Admittance
School of the Flower

If the indie-rock pundits are to be believed, the recent crop of “freak-folk” progenitors – Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Animal Collective, and the like – are as notable for their obscure influences as they are for their music. John Fahey? Check. Vashti Bunyan? Check. Michael Hurley? Check. As far as obscure, cred-building influences go, however, it’s pretty tough to beat Gary Higgins. You see, no one’s sure who the hell he is. He released a well-received record in the mid-70s and disappeared. He was probably in prison at some point. He might still be.

On School of the Flower, Six Organs of Admittance mastermind Ben Chasny covers Higgins’s “Thicker Than a Smokey” and includes a brief statement in the liner notes: “If anyone has any information regarding the whereabouts or fate of Gary Higgins please contact us at Drag City.”

Chasny’s Six Organs project is only loosely connected with the aforementioned new-folk artists. He shares a rough geographical location with scene leader Banhart and taste-making record label Young God (northern California), but Chasny’s approach to folk music is diametrically opposed to those artists listed above. Instead of relying on folk’s longstanding tradition of narrative and structure, Chasny borrows only its rustic earthliness, building his free-form jams from the ground up. Only Chasny’s penchant for soft acoustic finger-picking shares anything with the tradition of folk music.

Building on his pillowy beds of melody, Chasny adds skyscraping electric guitars and his own heavenly voice. The Higgins track is actually the most structured on the album. When Chasny busts out the vocals, he does so to augment the mood of these songs rather than to convey emotion. A full-time member of Northwestern psychedelic rock behemoth Comets on Fire, Chasny’s electric ruminations carry the songs, be it the droning prattle of “Saint Cloud” or the humming, silver lead on “Home.”

As eclectic as Chasny’s influences may be, there isn’t much here that would sound out of place to underground rock fans. The astral tones of “Home” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wilco record, and the percussion and white noise eruptions of the title track recall his work with Comets on Fire. The opener, “Eighth Cognition / All You’ve Left,” opens with a blast of discord before settling soothingly into a lilting ballad. The short resonating guitar piece “Lisboa” closes the album with a burst of optimism, its wordless lullaby a fitting wrap-up to the album’s hard-won tunefulness.

The cover art of School of the Flower is perfect: artfully rendered, full of solid colors and hazy lines, it reflects the elemental quality of the album. Vaguely familiar, inarguably open to interpretation, School of the Flower is a triumph of ambiguity. Six Organs has little to do with the recent freak-folk scene, but if his proximity to those artists brings greater attention to School of the Flower, we’re all better off for it.