Rangda and Carlton Melton at Corsica Studios + Six Organs of Admittance at Birthdays

These two London dates hinged on the intervening weekend’s Supersonic festival in Birmingham, at which both of the headline acts and Carlton Melton played. Guitarist Ben Chasny plays with both Rangda and Six Organs of Admitance.

Rangda – photo by Tim Owen

Rangda + Carlton Melton + Gala Drop
Corsica Studios, London
18 Oct 2012

Rangda had some heavy guests on their date; not only the psych quintet Gala Drop, from Lisbon, who opened the show, but also geodesic dome-dwelling Californians Carlton Melton.

Where Gala Drop inhabited their own motorik jam-space, Carlton Melton played unashamedly to the crowd.

Although their website credits five multi-instrumentalists, the Californians played Corsica as a trio. I’m pretty confident that two of the three were Rich Millman, on guitar and synth, and Brian McDougall, who started on guitar but switched to drums, which is where things got interesting.

Deadhead McDougall (I think it’s safe to assume these guys don’t wear band Ts ironically) made a pretty good fist at replicating the Grateful Dead’s cavernous stadium drum sound, laying down a beat emphatic enough to allow the bass to freely channel melodic rhythms. Most eyes were on Millman’s unleashed guitar soloing though. We don’t often get to see such unashamed showboating these days; he closed his eyes and flicked some Gene Simmons lizard tongue, then jumped from the stage and fell to the cold concrete floor, still soloing. Before climbing back onto the stage to finish the set on synth,  he handed the guitar to a kid in the audience to wail on. Well, I’ve never seen anyone do that before.

Carlton Melton describe their work ethic thus: “There are no rehearsals, practices, demonstration tapes, second takes… what you hear is the first take… ‘Hit It And Quit It’ as Funkadelic would prescribe.” And mostly it works. The intro for bass, guitar and synth meandered a bit, but once McDougall was behind that bass drum all the hours reportedly spent woodshedding in that geodesic dome back home in Northern California paid off in full. The energies feeding into Carlton Melton might be capricious, but not unruly. The undeniable egotism here is collective, channeled to a common purpose.

Sir Richard Bishop (Sun City Girls), Ben Chasny, and Chris Corsano, playing together as Rangda, are more practised, not just as veterans of the indie and (in Corsano’s case) avant/improv scenes, but in their refinement. Much of their current set draws from the tightly structured material of their last album, Formerly Extinct, which glosses over some of the extremes of rage and filigree that made their their False Flag debut so compelling but cements their playing into a collective consciousness.

The contrast of Bishop’s primarily acoustical six-string dexterity with Chasny’s scorching, over-amped fretwork is as thrilling as it is dazzlingly intricate, but it’s Corsano who really galvanises the trio. He plays with explosive free jazz energy even in rock mode, with a stylistic range and fluidity that enables Bishop and Chasny to play as freely as they like.

The eastern feel and folksy intricacies characteristic of Bishop’s music highlighted facets of Chasny’s playing that are often only implicit. Likewise, Chasny’s ability to temper dissonance with overt melody emphasised the most earthy and visceral aspects of Bishop’s style.

For much of the set, the trios’ improvisational impulses were harnessed to tight melodic frameworks such as “Idol’s Eye” and “Majnun” (both tracks on Formerly Extinct), but it drew to a close on the valley-wide “Plain of Jars”. Its more open structure allowed subtle hues light and shade to suffuse the interplay of dual guitars, while Corsano switched to mallets to establish a corporal rhythmic.

Rangda – photo by Tim Owen

Six Organs of Admittance + Red River Dialect + Colossal Yes
Birthdays, London
22 Oct 2012

Where Rangda is a democratic outfit, Six Organs of Admittance is very much Chasny’s solo project. Initially taking a primarily acoustic, post-Fahey experimental direction, since 2005 Six Organs’ music has drawn more from Chasny’s work in other contexts. The 2007 album Shelter from the Ash, for instance, was influenced by Chasny’s personal and creative partnership with Magik Markers’ Elisa Ambrogio, while this years Ascent sees Chasny reunited with his bandmates in psych-rock outfit Comets on Fire.

This Six Organs is a trio of Chasny plus Comets’ rhythm team Ben Flashman (bass guitar) and Utrillo Kushner (drums). Utrillo also opened the show as Colossal Yes, accompanying himself on electric piano and harmonica (“it looks”, he said, mystifyingly, “like a broken penis”) on songs about vomit on blue suede shoes and other things, apparently influenced by Warren Zevron and John Cale.

Chasny has described principal support act Red River Dialect as “one of my favourite bands”. The group, originally from Falmouth, play epic songs with a Folk twist that’s emphasised by the presence of violinist Ed Sanders.

Red River Dialect’s wide-ranging ensemble sound benefitted from a clean, well balanced mix. Sadly, Six Organs themselves didn’t fare so well.

Birthdays must be one of London’s most charmless venues. Its puny PA was no match for Chasny’s vocals, let alone the amped-up wrackage of his guitar. Forget the ‘folk’ tag that hung neatly on Six Organs’ first seven years; the current edition has more in common with the psych rock exegesis of Comets on Fire: it’s less “Dry Bones in the Valley”, more imagine Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes grew up in Laurel Canyon, not Detroit.

Kushner’s drumming style falls somewhere between Corsano’s and McDougall’s, which would be enough in itself to kick Six Organ’s psych folk tendencies into a higher orbit, but it’s Flashman’s insistent bass surge that urges Chasny to magnificently excoriating excess.

The set’s climax came early, the PA blazing with disorientation as Chasny ripped into a loosely structured take in some Ascent material with controlled ferocity. At one point he theatrically rocked back on the balls of his feet and jammed his guitar’s headstock into the ceiling for percussive distortion.

Although the contours of Chasny’s compositions embrace some richly melodic fragments, and other passages are carried by loose rhythm grooves, this trio is mostly primed for climactic ascension.

At the end of the se,  in a brief solo coda, Chasny played a short variation on the sweet melodic fragment that shaped both “Torn by Wolves” and “Wolves’ Pup” on The Sun Awakens. It was a fragile reminder of how gentle previous incarnations of Six Organs could be. But with Comets on Fire on hiatus and its main man Ethan Miller preoccupied with Howlin’ Rain, this years’ Six Organs is a potent vehicle for the more volatile energies of Chasny and his fellow Comets.

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