If the Wikipedia count is to be believed, then including 7”s, EPs, full-length albums and the occasional limited-to-100-copies CDR, Asleep on the Floodplain (Drag City) is the 25th release from Six Organs of Admittance. Starting with 1998’s self-titled and weaving his way through a number of multi-album experiments and sonic phases, Californian singer/songwriter Ben Chasny (also of Comets on Fire) has kept a base of neo-folk and acoustic guitar across the Six Organs of Admittance discography, and on the latest, he scales back some of the fuller sounds of his previous album, Luminous Night, and returns to the home-based recording style of records like 2003’s Compathia. The main difference is the growth the ensuing eight years has brought about and Chasny’s depth of melodic range. In atmosphere, despite a contribution from Elisa Ambrogio on “River of My Youth” and some natural-sounding drones accompanying electric strums on “Brilliant Blue Sea Between Us,” Asleep on the Floodplain is lonely. Not empty, and not Chasny‘s most minimal work, but very solo sounding.
The album opens instrumentally with “Above a Desert I’ve Never Seen,” displaying immediately one of Chasny’s greatest strengths in its lyrical guitar lines. He doesn’t use guitar to substitute for vocals where there aren’t any, instead capturing a listener’s attention in a completely different way. His deft fingering has always made Six Organs of Admittance stand out, and that carries over to Asleep on the Floodplain. “Light of the Light” is a shorter, vocal song with a memorable melody that leads well into “Brilliant Blue Sea Between Us.” That three of the first four tracks on the album are instrumental should say something about Chasny’s focus, but the actual feel of Asleep on the Floodplain is so smooth-running that the water-based thematics come off as all the more appropriate. The title of the album, “Brilliant Blue Sea Between Us,” “Saint of Fishermen” and “River of My Youth” all contain some reference to water, and the flow of the songs speaks to that being on purpose. Could just as easily be me reading into it, but the transitions between instrumentals that leads into “Hold but Let Go” – the centerpiece and highlight cut for those craving vocals and structure – is soothing no matter what images you want to place over-top.
And while we’re alluding to it, the structure Chasny offers on “Hold but Let Go” is perfectly placed in the sequence of the tracks. Both “Brilliant Blue Sea Between Us” and “Saint of Fisherman” that precede are instrumental guitar pieces, and Asleep on the Floodplain takes a surprising turn thereafter with “River of My Youth,” so the organic, sweet and subdued but catchy “Hold but Let Go” is all the more needed as something for the listener to grab onto as they float away. That floating – again, with the water – is more or less what “River of My Youth” successfully affects. Opening with a long drone section and morphing into echoing guitar lines, the aforementioned guest vocals from Elisa Embrogio and far-away summertime wistfulness, “River of My Youth” shows a very different but no less accomplished approach than did “Hold but Let Go,” and were it not for a return to the lyrical guitar style of the opener that comes with the short instrumental “Poppies,” I might feel that everything after was a comedown.
“S/word and Leviathan” was reportedly inspired by the scholar Catherine Keller, and no doubt its 12:26 runtime of avant guitar work and distant vocal chanting is a departure from the bulk of Asleep on the Floodplain. The reason it works is that by this time, you’re either hypnotized by what Chasny has done over the seven tracks leading up to it, or you’ve already given up. I’d say if it’s the latter, it’s your loss, but admittedly, if you were to take the gradual build of “S/word and Leviathan” – leading to a brief but effective multi-layered vocal section – out of context from the album surrounding, its “mountain climb to wisdom” feel might not carry over as well as it does. As it stands though, the song adds a sense of grandeur to Asleep on the Floodplain that gets brilliantly contrasted by the bedroom minimalism of “A New Name on an Old Cement Bridge.” The acoustic guitar comes forward again with some light harmonium underneath (excellently mixed by the venerable Randall Dunn), and although it’s a return to ground after being lifted by “S/word and Leviathan,” the disparity isn’t harsh. Nothing on Asleep on the Floodplain is harsh. It’s gorgeous.
The evocative title “Dawn, Running Home” is barely able to hold the sweetness of the vocals Chasny layers throughout over rich drones, noises and acoustics. If there’s anywhere the varying approaches of Asleep on the Floodplain are brought together, it’s here on the closer, which moves fast through a five-minute runtime and caps off the full-length perhaps not as memorably as a song like “Hold but Let Go” – which will doubtless be the kind of takeaway track from Asleep on the Floodplain as “Thicker Than a Smokey” was on 2005’s School of the Flower or “Jade Like Wine” was on 2007’s Shelter from the Ash – but in a way that shows Chasny’s continued development as a songwriter and unwillingness to be bound by what are commonly considered the elements of folk. As ever, Six Organs of Admittance sound like healing, whatever sense of foreboding a name like Asleep on the Floodplain might bring out, and anyone approaching with an open mind and due attentiveness is bound to be rewarded.
Tags: California, Drag City, Six Organs of Admittance