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The only single these spiritualised doom metallers have ever issued and the first to feature Emil Amos on sticks duty after Chris Hakius's departure, "Gebel Barkal" signals a break with Om's crushing minimalist bass-n-drums dominant style. On old school Om recordings, the bass guitar and drums shared equal time and Chris Hakius more or less stuck to a time-keeping function with the occasional drum roll and trill. Now on the "Gebel Barkal", Amos signals his arrival by adopting a more individualistic and flamboyant style of drumming which completely dominates the tracks. Cisneros just keeps his bass low-key as if happy to let Amos steal all his thunder; after all, he had plenty of attention on previous Om albums.
I quite like the two tracks as they are but I think much more could have been done with them to satisfy both long-time fans and a new audience. The single proper needn't have been all laid-back rolling snare drum and tom-toms, the odd tambourine and clashing, spinning cymbal in its first three minutes. Later there is Cisneros's chanting accompanied by a very quiet fuzzy bass guitar melody. All very relaxing and pleasant but there's not much atmosphere that could have really set it apart from Om's previous recordings and at times the track seems a bit self-indulgent and not attuned into creating an immersive experience for the listener.
The second track is a dub remix with reverbed percussion and eerie guitar melodies and effects. The sound can be quite reedy at times. The bass guitar reduces its presence to near-invisibility which is sure to disappoint a lot of people who thought they knew all there was to Om musically. As with the first track, the rhythm is slow, casual, even desultory sometimes. It's only in the last minute of the track that something of Om's former power comes to the fore with a long, blaring melodic drone underpinned by rough-hewn bass guitar.
I guess I'm not the only one here wishing that this single had been expanded into an EP as the tracks sound unfinished; the second one definitely comes over as having been cruelly cut at the end and there was twice as much to come. Each track could have been 10 or even 20 minutes long, both building up with Amos's flashy drumming and Cisneros's steady-as-it-goes bass rhythm looping with appropriate ambient, space ambient and other effects being added gradually so the music acquires layer after layer at a steady pace and becomes something quite grand, rich and emotionally complex. The music could ebb and flow, mimicking the flow of breathing during meditation or relaxation. Track 2 could have included Cisneros's voice being treated with reverb also and other distortions added to his vocal so it becomes something unearthly and a little bit deranged.
I know it seems funny that I should score this single low when the music is good and likeable but I've come to have quite high expectations of Om and believe that they are capable of so much more than they've shown and don't need to restrain themselves as much as they do here on "Gebel Barkal" and on their later albums "God is Good" and "Advaitic Songs".
A few months ago, flicking though all FOUR of the TV channels that actually broadcast as far as my hilariously isolated shanty town abode, I happened upon one of those outrageously titled documentary programs that were all the rage on Channel 4 for a while there, called things like “The Girl Whose Face Fell Off” and “My Bones Are Piercing My Lungs” and such, you know the ones I mean. This one wasn’t about horrible medical conditions like most of the ridiculous Exploitamentaries that dominate the late evening slots though, but it was, in it’s own way, just as alien and freaky.
This one was called something along the lines of “When God Kills Everyone” and was exploring, in a pleasingly sneering and finger-jabbing kinda way, how the people in heavily religious countries deal with the idea of Vengeful God when massive natural disasters occur, which have in some cases wiped out all of their family and/or friends.
Oh, how the smugly middle-class reporter did a-patronisingly query these unfortunate lesser beings with razor-sharp questions like “If there was a God why did he kill all your family?” to crushed, newly homeless trauma-nauts, the memory of seeing their brothers & sisters swished away to their death in massive tidal waves still citrus-fresh in their watery minds. “Did you never stop to think there might not be a God since your whole village was wiped out?” he tactfully queries a man who had dedicated his whole existence to his church, which was long since swept away amongst the 40-foot massive mud-soups. Dig THAT scene!
But regardless, he did what he was sent there to do, I suppose, and got a reply. And interestingly enough the reply he got was always the same;
GOD IS TESTING US!
Mama-swingin’-mia! What a head-fuck! Imagine living under a cloud like THAT! Damn, that sho’ is alien and free-kay! Of course the program didn’t actually offer any kind of conclusion or a sense that there may have been a point to all this in the end, other than the usual wishy-washy Oh-What-A-Tragically-Inflicted-Set-Of-Shitty-Peoples and Gee, we’re glad that we ain’t like THEM cop-out. Just like all those other outrageously named Exploitamentaries they do, then. Damn, I’m glad I ain’t like little Jimmy out of “The Boy Whose Hair Grows Inward”, gazing sweetly into the distance, through the pain, as the melancholy piano & strings music wafts around in the background.
Blech. But what the documentary woulda done if I was the director, is end with a 10-minute fixed-camera shot with no voice-overs or music of a typical United Kingdom-style (the religion doesn’t really matter, it’s a more a cultural point) funeral service, like my dear old Granny’s one a while back, as the church peeps feverishly cajole each other into believing, more and more, that God exists and this death was his will, and we should not question his actions, or reasons for taking the deceased, or even doubt that it is undeniably for the best
LEST YOUR OWN FAITH BE QUESTION-ED!
And then, in the final shot, as the coffin is slowly carried out to the hearse, tonight’s winning lottery numbers pop up super-imposed on the bottom half of the screen, and WHAM! into blackness and then some adverts with Jamie Redknapp and his hideous family for Nintendo Wii or whatever the fuck it is he’s selling his soul for these days, before Channel 4 proudly presents “The Siamese Twins Who Can’t Stop Growing”.
Yes, the idea of God testing us, or testing our faith is not such an alien and free-kay thang as you might think from watching these programs, and I admit it took the frothy sting of death and subsequent funeral proceedings to remind me so. I am not religious though, at least not in any easily definable way, so this idea that God might do something really terrible just to test me isn’t something I can get with too easily. But what I CAN get with, and the reason why I can empathise with the religious types in my family, and the tsunami-pumped peoples of Africa in some small way, is because of the Earth-shattering, life-changing soul-crushing confusion and disappointment of my King, my God, my Alien-Super-Christ, OM’s release of this atrociously poor double-sided vinyl slab of half-assed, sloppy, watered down Om-isms.
Like I imagine followers of the various Invisible Sky Gods occasionally must, I’ve also endured many, many sleepless nights, much gnashing of teeth, much, much brow-furrowing action and plain old Endless-Wailing-Inner-Torment over the deep shock, anguish and depression caused by this outrageously below-par and oh-so-painfully permanent tarnishing of the supreme body of work we had come to know as Om.
This being said, maybe I shoulda seen it coming. IT WAS WRITTEN, after all. This being popular music and the 21st century though, it was written on myspace. In small, pixelated text, but every inch as meaningful and seismic as the words Moses chiselled into the holy, holy stones, there it was; “Drums - Emil Amos, FORMER MEMBERS – Chris Haikus”
Damn! I mean DAMN! I have to admit that even going over this crushes me, as I think about the alternate universe where Hakius hadn’t split and all the possible greatness that could have ensued. Here was a band whose chemistry seemed nigh-on perfect, every minute detail of each member’s playing absolutely essential to the awesome brew, steadily churning out classic after classic, and then PFOOF! all that gone in a waft of social-networky smoke. Who knows why Hakius left, I can only guess it wasn’t due to any animosity between the two of them, as they got together again soon after to play a couple Sleep reunion shows and seemed happy enough there, but I dunno. Anyway the deal had been done, Hakius was gone, taking his absolutely perfect, unique contribution to the sound with him and in his place was the drummer from Grails, contributing drums like, well, the drummer out of Grails.
Don’t get me wrong, he’s a good drummer, maybe even a great one, I’d heard him before all this on a few Grails songs and I thought he was great right away. He plays drums in a kinda sparsely timekeeping way, the ride cymbal or hi-hat hit 4 times-a-bar, as opposed to the more common 8, and with flurries of syncopated fills and rolls, starting and ending in weird places within the beat, all of which I am a complete and total sucker for. But for the music of Om? I don’t dig it. To be fair, he tones it down a bit, probably in a nod to Hakius’ style, but to be honest the only thing that would work for me would be if he copied Hakius 100%, which would be pointless and a bit of a downer anyway. It’s a no-win situation really.
But regardless, this isn’t why Gebel Barkal is such a disappointment. The reason for that is that the song itself is so poor. The riffs, the lyrics, the melody, the length, the actual sound of the recording, it’s all so, so, so much weaker than everything that preceded it in Om’s canon.
Oh, how it saddened me, how it cut me up, angered me even! But then, as I’m sure you’ve all experienced, doubt set in. Is it ME who’s got it wrong? Maybe I just don’t get it? Surely the genius who created all those wonderful things would never do anything as bad/incorrect as this seems to be? Am I unworthy? Is it really the perceived poor quality of the piece that repels me, or is it the change in style? Am I the guilty one for expecting, or even silently DEMANDING a set sound from these people? Fuck! Plus I know that this kind of thinking usually re-enforces the disappointment, like “I can’t be wrong! I know my shits! It must be HE or SHE or THEM or IT who is wrong!” and eventually onto anger. So now I’m second-guessing myself, and while I know, in my heart of motherfucking hearts that the quality of this stuff is so much poorer, maybe it’s the style that throws me off too... And that’s much worse, because being plain wrong is bad, but not-a-patch on being the worst-of-all; A PURIST.
Could it be? Maybe so, because “purist” is definitely a potential tag for early Om fans, as their music is undoubtedly Pure-As-Crystal-Fuck and that’s one of the main reasons that I love it, love it, love it so.
Shit, maybe I AM a purist. What a horrible thought, what a horrible reflection to catch in the mirror-mind of my mind, as I picture all straight-laced titless purists that I’ve sneered at in the past. Is that me? Do I drain people around me with my smug humourless whining and blinkered reasoning like all these superior schmoes? Will I be deemed a sucker in the eyes of the future like the tank-topped mono-mongs that shat in their corduroys with sheer rage at Bob Dylan’s new “electric” music of 1965/66 for example? Would that have been ME if I’d been around then, too blinded by my love of the “pure” music of traditional folk music to dig the now-screamingly obvious greatness of life-enhancing, soul-popping deathless untouchables like ‘Like A Rolling Stone’? Would I have actually stood there and BOOED genius like ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and ‘Tombstone Blues’? Am I the spineless future-sucker of my mid-60s sucker-kin? Fuck, what a HORRIBLE THOUGHT.
But regardless, Gebel Barkal certainly got me in a stir about all that, and I’m GLAD it did, because I think it’s only fair and righteous that we, as supposed impartial listeners DO question our own faith, and while we may be what we is, know what we knows and dig what we diggin’, it’s only downright CORRECT that we should question our own preferences once in a while. So hail this new version of Om for that, at least.
Still, having to-ed and fro-ed, tossed and turned, shooked and schmucked about it for long enough, it’s time to move on, and grudgingly admit that, oh well, I WAS PROBABLY RIGHT ANYWAY. Because for me, the music that shines blinding like sickly radioactive gold over all others, is not that of the evolved muso, expressing his technique on my toilet. No, for me the real motherlode is most commonly found when bands are at their most primitive, usually the early stages when they’re just grasping their thang, or maybe don’t even realise which way their thang is swangin’ yet, way, way, way before it all becomes… interesting.
Because I’m not interested in things that are interesting, I’m interested in the raw, primal, pure stuff, AND the deconstructed, insane, intense, free stuff that only occasionally follows when an artist is in-tune enough with the world to wallow in the pure redemption that truly insane music offers. Gimmie the hopeless melancholy dirges from Big Star’s smack-in-the-box THIRD album over half of the stuff on their #1 RECORD debut any-day. Gimmie Skip Spence’s one-man-and-his-bass-and-a-recording-studio gibbering genius of OAR over MOBY GRAPE any-month. Gimmie Neil Young singing about ambulances and Charles Manson and people pissin’ in the wind like his mind just poured out of his nose and onto his lap with sheer helplessness on ON THE BEACH, over HARVEST or any of that cack any-aeon.
Gimme all of that, and more, mama! That’s the special sauce in the mind-pudding that we all drink though our ears, and it tastes so damn good to me that I skip the pudding entirely and just buy the sauce. But what a blow-to-my-soul it is to suddenly have the realisation that the sauce-pond is running dry thrust upon me, and that it can never be re-sauced. Cisneros & Hakius were like some 8-limbed mind-courier for my personal sauce stash. It’s like the guy who makes my favourite pizza, the chick who cuts my hair just right, and the dood that sorts my M.O.T. as a “pass” for me every year even though my car is completely fucked all emigrated to Barbados and took all of the fossil fuels in Europe away with them too. I knock back gallons of this new sauce again and again, trying to aquire a taste for it, but it’s no use, it just makes me sick, my hair is lop-sided, there’s too much puree on my pizzas, I got whacked for £600 for my M.O.T. which is more than I paid for the fuckin car in the first place, my house is freezing and I don’t even have any electricity to listen to Om but if I did I would just be sicker anyway, as every further release edges away from the source of greatness that they once seemed to actually BE.
At least they’re still edging somewhere though, I’ll give them that, at least they remain righteous enough to keep on slowly evolving in their own weird way. Too bad that I had to step off the journey at this point & miss the Barkal boat altogether, TOOT TOOT away she blows over the horizon.
But enough of the “for why?”, and more of the “to where?” I suppose. I’ll tell you how it to me at least, standing here squinting on the desert island of purist nonsense, it looks like mad captain Cisneros went crackers drinking his own piss just to survive out on the unforgiving seas of their singular music and had poor land-lubber Hakius cut the anchor free and walk the plank with it as a necklace, then spotted fair maid Emil on the shore-o, and by many persuasions got her on board to drift aimlessly together out in the briney wild, Cisneros riffing his thang and Emil funking it up until they run grounded upon some more forgiving shore. Whether the sea hag will drum the Captain sweetly to sleep and then rob him of jewels, rob him of rings, rob them a fine costly ware-o before paddling back to the shore-o using his bass as an oar just like the song says, remains to be seen.
But I tell you this, using Gebel Barkal as some kind of navigational tool is pointless, because 1) it’s only a record and this review is fucking stupid and ridiculous, and 2) without wise Hakius’ drumming, Cisneros sounds totally rudderless.
And it’s hard to blame him, because where once he had the most astoundingly monotonous active drummer in the world doing his non-thang in perfect parallel with every riff and lick he smacked out from his big Ricky bass, suddenly Hakius’ magic carpet is pulled from under him, replaced with only the comparatively uncaring ethnic percussive drum stylings witnessed on Gebel Barkal. Not that there’s anything wrong with ethnic drum stylings per se, after all, Om’s masterpiece ‘AT GIZA’ had a weirdly Egyptian vibe to it, and Pilgrimage’s title track was pretty eastern sounding too. But ‘AT GIZA’ was ethnic like the pyramids, or the sphinx; huge, bold, unknowable, unique, alien, vast. Gebel Barkal is more like some toothless eastern streetside salesman’s touristy tat; small, cheap, one-of-many, cheaply assembled, pretty for a long enough period of time to relieve the punter of his or her hard earned holiday dough, then swiftly shoved away in a drawer or shoebox once home. If even packed for the return flight at all. I can see all the bells and whistles that got rush-packed into the construction of this track all too easily, and damn, they stink my eyes up bad.
Shit, I might as well quit stalling and get on with it. Gebel Barkal starts off with yer usual ‘second’ style of Om riff, you know, the spookier sounding clean-toned minor-key doodling. After a few bars of this the drums enter, and the devoted Om-head will notice a subtle change right away as Emil whacks an unexpected snare hit over the 1st beat in bar number 2. Fuck, he just couldn’t help himself, could he?! Oh man! How un-cool, yadda-yadda-yadda, it sounds alright actually, and the backwards-reverbed snare rudiments that creep in ominously are a nice touch and a damn good idea which I might rip-off sometime for my own brutally muse-less music. Anyway, this continues with Al holding his bass-pattern while Amos has the occasional syncopated rammy around his kit. At the 2:40 mark Al steps up to the mic for a ‘verse’, is you can call four half-assed lines of Mountain-At-Dawn-isms such, and to be honest it sounds weak and silly and crap. This is probably how non-heads hear all Om tracks, and if it is, I sincerely feel terrible for them, because it’s 100% pish.
But onwards and upwards, Al moves onto a slightly fiddlier variation of the riff for a couple measures before the song kicks into the ‘heavy’ section with a shuddering drum roll. Only this section is so poorly recorded it sounds even weaker than Al’s verse. Evidently he left his regular bass set-up elsewhere, so instead of his huge sound which is probably the most important element in all things Om, we get Al hitting the strings a little harder while someone holds down an E note on a Casio keyboard set to “snake charmer horn”. Emil makes a decent fist of giving this song some vague sense of dynamic change at this point, unfortunately no-one thought to mic-up any part of his kit except the snare drum. The two jam this utter failure of a section out for all of 45 seconds before… nothing. That’s it. The needle slips into the run-out groove and lifts. Game over. What the fuck? 4 and a half minutes of woefully recorded, seemingly made-up-on-the-spot, half-realised, pathetic rubbish. Four brief lines of the worst vocals Cisneros has ever put his name to. One lesser variation on the riff from ‘Pilgrimage’. Man, is this the biggest half-assed waste of space in recent memory? As the needle drops on side 2, you quickly realise… NOT BY A LONG WAY.
For side 2 contains a track called ‘Version’, which in the grand old tradition of reggae (YES, I KNOW), usually means some righteous dub twisting of the a-side, the vocals, guitars and most lead instruments pulled back to crazy-sounding echoed snippets as the groove of the song is left exposed to shine and the drums and bass soothe the listener’s mind. I always look forward to dub versions of songs, and did I look forward to this? You betcha! But will I ever look forward to a dub version of anything again? Shit, no! Because this cack-o-gramme had a hopeless groove which was over-exposed to begin with, and the vocals only deserved to be pulled back into Al’s mouth, swallowed, and then shat.
Along with the barely-audible difference in sound from the a-side, we get some echoed dub effects on the snare, Al kicks his amp at one point to get a reverby crackling sound, and a few snippets of his vocals waft in and out briefly, before I SHIT YOU NOT, THEY ACTUALLY CRACK OUT THE MELODICA. I SHIT YOU NOT, PEOPLE, THEY REALLY, DO. And what a farce it is; the mystery player (I hope it isn’t Al) diddles about on the keys marked E, F and D, before the track ends just as it did on the a-side. UN-BE-LIEVABLE! I mean, is this supposed to be funny, even? Some kind of stoned in-joke? Because I tell ya, if you paid hard cash for this withered piece of pseudo-dub bullshit you’ll be humourlessly flushing your dope down the toilet before this track is even half-way through, lest it ever drive you to thinking about making something so pointless and un-funny as this. Fuck, they might have as well went the whole hog and moo-ed through an empty toilet tube in true Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry style and had someone shouting “JAH!” through a delay pedal. Holy shit! King Tubby this ain’t.
Surely nothing is as disappointing in music as a total hero of unique righteousness slipping into pastiche. It screams out directionless-ness and a total lack of inspiration; surely the most depressing of all afflictions. I keep listening over and over in the hope that it’s gonna click, that instead of uninspired gash, I hear a new twist on Om’s thang, maybe starting to make sense in some oblique way. But no. Nothing. It’s always the same.
The needle lifts. My head drops. My soul drips out of my third eye and onto the table in front of me. I lifelessly raise my arm and place my hand on the table. With the side of my hand downwards on the table, I draw my hand out backwards, and with the back of my hand, wipe my soul off the table and onto the floor. I remain in this position, head bowed, arms dangling, for several days while my dog eats the soul off the floor, evolves into a depressed mutant, relates the horribleness of Gebel Barkal to Samaritans over and over until the battery in my phone runs out, before killing himself by jumping off the Forth Road Bridge. As he plummets to his watery grave, his eyes rolling back in his skull, the air rushing into his eardrums to blissfully drown out the dub parody horseshit swimming around in his mind, he abandons his mind totally, and unconsciously thinking of you, the reader of this review, he issues one last, demented, heartbroken wail from the very depth of his mutt-soul;
After the tragic news of Chris Hakius calling it quits with Om, nobody was quite sure of what was going to happen. Who will he choose to drum? Will he even continue? The only thought going through my mind was 'Al must have some unfinished business', and sure enough, I was right.
Enter Emil Amos. Composer/instrumentalist for the one-man army Holy Sons, and drummer for the group Grails (who I highly recommend), Emil brings a much fresher, yet still completely hypnotic influence to Om. Before I let Gebel Barkal really set in, I decided to give a couple Grails releases a try. I chose "Burning Off Impurities" and the "Take Refuge.." albums, and honestly, from there I knew Emil Amos would be a perfect fit in the Om puzzle (however small it is).
Gebel Barkal starts off like many newer Om songs, with Al quietly setting the tempo and feel of the song, but when Emil comes in, it takes a complete 180 from Pilgrimage.
Whereas Pilgrimage the drumming was quite repetitive in rhythm, Emil improvises in quite a few sections with varied patterns, utilizing lots of dynamics and the full kit as well. The toms are still for those who dig them, but there's just less.
For the song itself, well, I personally think it's genius. If Sub-Pop had just released the first side as the single, I would still be more than happy. But with the addition of the dubbed out, more freeflowing (Version) on the other side, it shows us the bigger scope of vision that Om has employed. That is, expanded instrumentation (note the kick ass organ at the end) and varied aural devices, such as the snare delay. This was absolute genius of them on their part, I don't even care if it's essentially the same song twice.
I'm excited to hear what Al and Emil have to offer in the future, especially seeing as they already have LP4 written completely and a Japan 2008 live release coming, both slated for '09. As well, bring on Shrinebuilder!