Several years ago, after tiring of the predictable patterns he sensed himself settling into as a guitar player, Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance decided to design a theoretical framework that would force his hands into different positions. Chasny distributed a deck of poker cards in a circular array of sets of six, corresponding to the notes of the guitar. The relative positions of the cards gave Chasny a "tonal field" in which to operate, as well as a set of notes from which to pick, some indication of time and tempo, and lyrical rules for the songs themselves.
Though Chasny describes it as a "caveman" appropriation of similar constructs by Anthony Braxton and John Cage, it is involved and elaborate enough to prompt a book, The Hexadic System, published by Drag City this year. And February's Hexadic, his public debut with the system, felt like an attempt to declare its formidable nature. Showcasing the scope of the system felt as important as the songs. Unapologetically loud and aggressive, with more than a whiff of hardline Japanese psych, it was an extreme indoctrination into a new approach. Recorded with a fully loaded quartet, the largely instrumental Hexadic was not for the faint of heart or those accustomed to Chasny’s softer side.
For Hexadic II, though, Chasny used the same results of the system to create new solo versions of the songs. He swapped the electric for the acoustic, added soft murmurs of harmonium and electronics and strings, and sang on almost all of the songs. The output gives the Hexadic System a new patina of accessibility. On the penultimate track "Vile Hell", Chasny jumps between notes at unexpected angles, sounding like Derek Bailey in a windstorm, before he stops playing altogether. He lets a faint, luminous drone linger until it spills over into "Poor Guild", the record’s gorgeous finale. Violinist Jen Gelineau matches the drone’s tone, and Chasny picks his way through it. In a keening falsetto, he offers a series of elliptical, evocative phrases—"tiny excess/ eye maligned/ depict, transfix." It is the most purely pretty moment in Chasny’s enormous catalogue, the sight of an early bloom, opening slowly after an arduous winter.
The nine tracks on Hexadic II follow the same order as their Hexadic counterparts, and careful, comparative listening does reveal analogous aspects. It’s more rewarding, though, to consider the differences, or to take the sets as entirely separate products of the same process. The disparity shows just how far Chasny may be able to take an idea still in its early stages of execution. Where "Wax Chance" was a diabolical, noise-soaked dirge, "Exultation Wave" is an exquisite gallop, with multiple guitar lines and multi-tracked vocals suggesting the density of the earlier work without trying to match it. Likewise, the two-minutes of no-wave roar from "Maximum Hexadic" unfurl here into eight minutes of circular picking and ghastly vocals for "Anyone’s Dawn". Chasny’s playing invokes the same Middle Eastern influences that Sir Richard Bishop has often conjured, while his singing recalls the fragile coo of Richard Youngs. What was shocking is now sublime.
In that way, the Hexadic System feels like a prism for Chasny, able to draw different elements of his influences and approach based on the input and circumstances. The results are novel and approachable, a combination that enables Chasny to transcend the examples of Cage and Braxton, at least in execution. Despite the complexity of the system that produced Hexadic II, the songs and sounds measure up to the setup itself. Pitchfork