Psych 101

Tripping with Charalambides and Six Organs of Admittance

Psychedelic. I personally don't have a beef with the word, but it carries its own set of baggage. Either it's an instant cue for older relations to mime their youthful excesses in a style one can only describe as bad Cheech and Chong. Or it's an excuse for younger friends to sneer about self-indulgence and pretension--which to them is pretty much any band that doesn't wear matching outfits and dares to write songs beyond the 3:30 mark. Still, when it comes down to it, some respectable groups can be tagged as psychedelic: Both Charalambides and Six Organs of Admittance (a.k.a. guitarist Ben Chasny), for instance, fit the bill. But not in the way you'd think.

This genre affinity doesn't come from the fact that both entities--who will appear at the first ever Destijl Festival in Minneapolis on Friday, July 5--dip into LSD tributes, paisley, and sitars. They don't, though it would be fine if they did. The groups don't even embrace the psychedelic label. (Chasny writes in a recent e-mail interview that, if pressed, he'd consider himself to be a folk artist, if anything.) Still, their music can induce a kind of pseudo-synesthesia usually associated with hallucinogens. Charalambides and Six Organs of Admittance make sound both visual and palpable--sculpting it, hacking it to bits, gently transforming it into little tufts, coloring it with varying tones.

Psychedelica, without the paisley sitars: Charalambides
Christina Carter
Psychedelica, without the paisley sitars: Charalambides

That's the case with almost all bands on the all-day Destijl lineup, which features such national sonic architects as Sightings, Wolf Eyes, Charalambides, Heathen Shame, Double Leopards, Little Howlin' Wolf, Hall of Fame, Six Organs of Admittance, John Godbert, Son of Earth/Flesh on Bone, Nautical Almanac, Joshua Burkett, Neon Hunk, Hair Police. Locals Paul Metzger (of TVBC), Barlow/Wivinus/Peterson, Viaticum, Mammall, Milo Fine, Michael Yonkers, and Ashcroft will also break the sound barrier. Whether howling through a homemade mask or distorting tones into a different plane of existence, all these acts encourage the listener to bend her orderly consciousness.

And the emotional content of Charalambides and Six Organs of Admittance is equally malleable. Noisy workouts are made alluring with fractured melodies, and winsome songs become a little ominous with a minor chord or near-whispered vocal. Charalambides mix pretty and unsettling elements on "Skin of Rivers," a song from their latest split release with Scorces--Charalambides have four songs to Scorces' one--on Charalambides' label Wholly Own. (Scorces features Charalambides' Christina Carter and Heather Murray playing as a duo.) The loveliness of Carter and Murray's vocal harmonies on the mostly a cappella number is tempered by the starkness of the arrangement. Two restrained, wordless voices hold sustained notes while guitarist Tom Carter (Christina's husband) provides running instrumental commentary--at first with barely audible pulses, then with more assertive rumbles and swells. Charalambides instill the split's opposite side with an older song, "Magnolia." Other versions of this track have been released in which the song is loud, dense, and unnerving. On this particular release, it's almost as unsettling, but its texture is much lighter, almost delicate.

On the phone from Austin, Texas, Carter jokes about how Charalambides always renege on their sonic promises to themselves. They stop playing loud, only to return to high volumes later. Carter swears she'll never sing another proper set of words, and then starts writing songs with lyrics again. "We used to say things really definitely: We're not doing any more songs! We're not doing this and we're not doing that," she laughs. "But every time we do that, we end up doing exactly the opposite."

The biggest surprise of late is Carter's singing: She possesses a sweet voice that's capable of powerful, frightening wails. (Thanks to those shrieks, a friend of mine refuses to listen to the band's 1997 self-titled live recording alone.) But on the new disc, she has scaled back a lot on her volume and force, appearing more concerned about pure sound than actual singing. That approach works: The vocal tones mimic and merge into the guitar tones (all three Charalambides members play) to the point where it can be difficult to tell them apart.

 

Six Organs of Admittance's latest, Dark Noontide (Holy Mountain), is as shimmering and cool as its gold and robin's-egg-blue cover. But though the melodies are lovely, Ben Chasny counteracts any hint of superfluous prettiness by roughing up the texture--a quaver in his voice here, a dark smear of a guitar effect there. The music slides from long, gangly ragas festooned with bells and electronic squonks to transparent washes of sound. There are a couple of sinuous solo-acoustic guitar pieces that highlight his debt to guitarists Leo Kottke and Bert Jansch.

On a record that's restless and full of little surprises, the closer "A Thousand Birds" is a shocker. "I wanted to make a pop song, to see if I could do it," writes Chasny. While "A Thousand Birds" is not necessarily going to be burning up KDWB's airwaves in the conceivable future, it's full of nifty bits: distorted, loose vocals, an electric-guitar solo that cuts through the song like a hot titanium wire through a hunk of Brie, and thick Middle Eastern percussion. (Chasny says he was listening to psychedelic guitarist Erkin Koray--whom some have dubbed "the Turkish Jimi Hendrix"--at the time he wrote the song.)

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