What’s the freakin’ deal?

There are all kinds of hyphenates living on the indie fringe. Post-whatever blabber metal, pre-soaked punk fuzz — the names vary.

Basically a vaguely fresh sound is concocted in some bedroom or bar, and it’s just unique enough to warrant the message-board thread that argues over what it should be called. “Pizzazz-core is the new flock-rock! Discuss.” The names rarely matter because the wags, blogs and bands all move on in two or three months anyway. Nothing’s the “new anything” anymore.

Yet, this thing called freak folk has legs. It’s a loose collection of acoustic free spirits, hippie mumblers, art-damaged experimentalists and facial-hair enthusiasts. But they’ve nevertheless made some of the most powerful underground music of the past few years.

Participants include the shambolic, prolific Devendra Banhart; tiny-voiced harpist Joanna Newsom; mysterious musical improvists Sunburned Hand of Man; and Ben Chasny’s one-man project, Six Organs of Admittance. From them the lines are traced backwards and sideways to Dylan, Donovan and Van Morrison.

But the lines run deeper, fuzzier and odder too. They land on John Fahey, purveyor of “American primitive guitar” and founder of the meticulous reissue label Revenant (Fahey’s often lionized, particularly by Chasny), as well as names as disparate as jazz legend Sun Ra, Japanese progressive rock explorers Acid Mothers Temple, and 1960s British folkies, the Fairport Convention.

But really, when the name-checking is done and the rock reference books are closed, what remains is contemporary music that feels old, weird or startlingly visceral. From Chasny’s evocative guitar instrumentals to the plucked harps and maypole imagery of Newsom’s 2004 album Milk-Eyed Mender, it’s curious music that actually resonates, and that’s more than you say for the average fly-by-night hyphenate.

It’s easy to say something is experimental, or art-damaged, or even a brilliant revival of 1960s psychedelia. But when those words crash into each other right in front of you, it illustrates what’s really going on with “freak folk,” “new folk” or any of the other modifiers it’s been called. When that happens, you don’t need to call it anything, other than “holy shit.”

And they certainly have a lot of music to draw from. As Six Organs of Admittance, Chasny’s work can be broken and detached, or winnowing and graceful; 2004’s For Octavio Paz, for example, mixed melancholy and darkness with only the hush of a nylon-string guitar. But he’s also an electric guitarist in the raucous psych-rock band Comets on Fire. And as an added left turn, he released a record last year under the moniker August Born, an improvisational collaboration with drummer Hiroyuki Usui that featured finger-picked guitars, sketches of percussion and random whispers of vocals and studio noise. (If that’s not enough, there are the swelling, equally inventive discographies of Maloney and Woods.)

None of these guys is concerned with accessibility, and patience is a requirement in the listening. But they don’t have any boundaries, either. Freak folk has no rules, so it’s just right, and incredibly rewarding in its immediacy. Unlike the prefab genre combos that come and go with the drug trends, Chasny and his fellow travelers revel in their ability to scratch your chin with sound, to get their music so close that it could be your conscience talking, or a bunch of jumbled memories twisting in the breeze.


Six Organs of Admittance appears at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 12, at Stormy Records, 13939 Michigan Ave., Suite E, Dearborn; 313-581-9322. With Hush Harbor and Warmer Milks.


See Also:

Freak so unique

Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer. Send comment to [email protected]
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