Above: the cover to Arthur No. 7 (Nov 2003)—artwork by John Coulthart, design by W.T. Nelson
Dark Funk, Gardenfolk and the Almighty Zaps
This summer, underground psych bands SUNBURNED HAND OF THE MAN, COMETS ON FIRE and SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE ventured across the continent in a traveling caravan of mindblowers. Tony Rettman reports live from the scene.
Originally published in Arthur No. 7 (November 2003)—available from The Arthur Store
“Jazz doesn’t have to swing and rock doesn’t have to rock and religion has next to nothing to do with God.” —Richard Meltzer
Yes. Meltzer’s testimonial riff is the kind that can really get you going going gone. Strip music of any elements that seem banal, pretentious or overly cerebral. Twist the sound into something of your own. Create a primal celebration of boundary-less independence. Join the others who’ve walked through the door marked “Free”—and emerge with a blown mind full of free jazz, psychedelia, proto-metal, oddball folk, prog rock, blues, English country rock, funk, mind-numbing drones, electronic music, non-genre improvisation.
In the past few years, a seemingly ever-growing number of underground American artists have been making that trek Beyond, collecting elements from these sounds and shooting them through a post-punk perspective, laying the results down on self-pressed vinyl and home-burned CD-Rs, sold through homegrown distribution networks like Brooklyn’s Fusetron, Arizona’s Eclipse Records, and Massachusetts’ Forced Exposure and Ecstatic Yod.
But a funny thing is happening. Through next to no effort of their own, these freaks are now attracting the attention of curious folk from outside the esoteric, near-hermetic circles that their music was necessarily born from and sustained by. Indeed, the very definition of this genre-obscuring cult movin’ on up happened this July when three of the finest units out of this quote scene unquote descended on Pianos in NYC to strut their stuff: San Francisco’s’ loud-as-hell psychedelic four-piece Comets On Fire, Boston’s 15-member sound collective The Sunburned Hand of the Man and the author of the new chapter of gypsy folk meanings from Santa Cruz, Six Organs of Admittance. This show—the conclusion of a three-week tour—brought together three groups who are aesthetically linked in approach, intensity and a loosely limbed philosophy: Here’s how the whole enchilada—the show, the tour, the bands themselves—came together and got down to getting Free.
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Ben Chasny is Six Organs of Admittance–he is the sole soul responsible for the unearthly and solemn sounds created under this moniker, with others occasionally sitting in on recordings and live sets. Tonight at Pianos in he first and he plays alone, acoustic guitar in his lap, head down and hair in face, with only his black jackbooted heel to keep the beat. “Transcendent” is the bang-on word to describe what Chasny lays out. His music conjures up foggy, half-remembered memories of drunken nights in overlit fluorescent rooms that pulse. Strange feelings that mix danger with joy. And then he busts out with a cover of Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid.”
Visiting with Chasny later in the evening over a beer at the bar, I get some background. Chasny grew up in the woods bordering the northern California town of Eureka, 300 miles north of San Francisco. His musical upbringing was positive hardcore punk, until one day when his hippie father laid dark folk troubadour Nick Drake’s Fruit Tree box set on him. In it laid all the keys needed to open Chasny’s doors wide open. A second turning point came when a friend returned from a journey to San Francisco with a copy of the underground psych magazine Forced Exposure in hand. “That magazine was filled with exactly what I knew was out there but couldn’t find,” says Chasny. “I went crazy and started absorbing all the new sounds they were championing.”Continue reading