Experimental compilation straddles exploration and listlessness
Critics of every discipline know the need to view different work through different lenses. It is foolish to compare Van Gogh to Banksy, Citizen Kane to Scary Movie 3, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” Standards of quality are not absolute. Art must succeed on its own terms and in its own dimension. Which makes the task of reviewing Six Organs of Admittance’s unusual Hexadic III an arduous one.
First, it is disingenuous to describe this as a Six Organs of Admittance album. Hexadic III is a compilation, curated by Six Organs guitarist and brain Ben Chasny, of work by musicians composing with the Hexadic system, a compositional technique of his design that relates playing cards to musical notes in order to inspire exploration of unorthodox tonal relations. No contributing artist has more than one song. The album’s unifying theme thus becomes its disunity, rendering it most strongly a postmodern work, which is not so far out. But how much forgiveness do we afford an album that is inherently uncommercial, sometimes deliberately unappealing and still technically within the popular arena? There isn’t a single lens that suits the job, so proceed with the knowledge that the ground is unstable.
Hexadic III is mostly dull, but not uninteresting. You know in detail where every single song is going to go within its first ten seconds, because they go nowhere. This can feel oppressive on the album’s several songs that break five minutes. The surprises on Hexadic III are found not within songs, but between them. Opener “Square of the Sun,” by Moon Duo, is the most offensively boring song here, but unlike the runner-up (which I’ll get to shortly), it is almost devoid of redeeming creative qualities, which is surprising given the circumstances of its creation. Bubbling along listlessly, it will make a fine soundtrack for the bland daily activities of the urban upper-middle class youth and little more. Similarly, Jenks Millers’ “The Hanging Man,” lands as a shallow pastiche of The War On Drugs’ sprawling, ambient rock since Lost In the Dream, but without groove, passion or soul.
The aforementioned second most offensively boring song here would have to be “Solastalgia,” which is basically what happens when three individual musical minds – Stephen O’Malley, Tim Wyskida and Marc Urselli, each ostensibly with creative input and veto power – decide to turn the last four minutes of Neil Young’s “Walk Like A Giant” into a thirteen and a half minute song. Meaning it is random instrumental clangs for that length, which is explained if not exactly justified, by the Hexadic method. The avant-garde/experimental lenses tell me that this is provocative, challenging, recklessly creative and worthy of merit for those qualities alone. Other lenses roll their eyes at the tedium and purposelessness of the endeavor and bemoan a fair chunk of time that feels wasted. Neither take is wrong per se, but trying to reconcile the two leads back to that Neil Young song. The final minutes function as effectively unconventional and provocative art due to their contrast with the twelve minutes of actual music that precedes them, guaranteeing their impact. Intentions are different, of course, but with its makers aspiring to vision without reach, they consign the experimental work to curious sideshow insignificance.
Hexadic III still comes bearing some more readily identifiable successes. “Ko,” by Tashi Dorji, the album’s shortest track, is just a brief bit of noodling on a koto, a Japanese instrument of timbral beauty and drama that its desultory appearance here cannot dispel. The weirdness of the Richard Young-authored “Abandoned Problems” resembles late Bowie and tests, with conviction and greater success than “Solastalgia,” the limits of what the word “song” can mean. Phil Legard’s closer, “Zoa Pastorale,” is a long, eerie crawl on a church-evoking pipe organ that leaves a lingering disquiet.
Make of all this what you will. I’m not sure I could give this album a numerical score if I had to, its experimental nature almost making dubious the designation “album.” However uneven the results, though, Hexadic III is defined by admirable ambition, which is preferable to laziness every time. You may love it, you may hate it, you may love and hate it, but you should appreciate it and it will elicit something.
Or maybe not.