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In many ways, it's easy to take what Om do for granted. They play, and have always played, slow and stoned takes on a spiritual drum and bass sound, latterly with other Eastern instruments seeping into the mix. The idea, as we started to work out by the time 'Pilgrimage' and 'God Is Good' rolled out, is that the ritual repetition and accretion of detail builds up to a religious intensity and provides a vehicle for higher states of mind and feeling in a kind of meditative trance. What isn't clear is exactly how involved Om are with the metal scene, because if you ask me they left it the moment Sleep split up and have never looked back.
'Variations on a Theme' is easily the heaviest Om release, as well as the most basic, and it really doesn't have a lot to do with any metal band you would care to mention, not even those like Kyuss or Sleep who did sometimes sit on the verge of stoner rock with a low percentage of arse cheek hanging over into metal. For starters, this is an album with no electric guitars, and nothing like a lead instrument in sight. Those other stoner bands at least wigged out with solos or had an improvised section in a few songs, but Om is a drum and bass band in the most literal sense - this album contains three instruments, just drums, bass, and vocals. However, it is a guitar album, if you can believe that. The attraction must be the enormous, churning, grunting bass of Al Cisneros before anything else, and that's the reason why my Itunes sorts this into the doom metal genre, since the deep sounds of his bass flatten everything like thunder and earthquakes in a manner that is decidedly heavier than most of the Electric Wizards or Cathedrals of our world. He isn't terribly busy at times (the last two tracks particularly are pretty slow), though the riffs he does play are good and get a lot of help from the aura of his bass, which rips and distorts more than expected at times. His voice is simply a chant, a drone, a slow pulse of words, definitely not a focus. Chris Hakius doesn't have a terribly exciting role as the drummer here, but he does much more than simply keeping pace, adding some fills and varied patterns, especially with the cymbals.
The music on offer is repetitive by nature. 'Annapurna', for example, has just one riff and the only change in the song is the shift to a slower pace about halfway through. Yet, that's just fine: getting inside the circling riff is all that it takes to make the 11 minute song expand to a great size and it engulfs the listener, which is just what good music should do. The best song is quite clearly 'On the Mountain at Dawn', the lengthy opener, which has the pick of the riffs and the most interesting development during the course of its duration. The first half circles on a few riffs (or one multi-part riff if you like) and exchanges Cisneros's vocal line with an almighty riff lick that is actually sexy it grooves so much. The added pace later in the song is at once exciting and mindblowing, since your brain has become accustomed to the pace of the song and it feels as if your body is accelerating rather than the musicians, which is awesome to behold. That song in particular, but also the others to a certain extent, have such a low sound and throaty gurgle on the bass that you may be able to feel some prickles of joy in your brain: I don't know how to explain it, but that happens to me sometimes with doom metal and other albums with very low-tuned guitars, and it's nothing to do with drugs.
That's the other thing about Om. I haven't mentioned spiritual escape or narcotic shamanism, because, although those things are almost certainly the inspiration and the content of the songs, no engagement with them is required for the album to be enjoyed. I just like music like this, that's all. Of course, you will pick up on the atmosphere of this album and end up either feeling abnormally focused or very relaxed. It tends to stroke my brain in such a way that I feel a little sleepy. It's like Burzum in that respect, but with no screaming.
The quest for spiritual enlightenment that has been the mainstay behind Om begins here in "Variations on a Theme". Already the template that distinguishes Om from other doom metal bands is in place: Al Cisneros playing distorted bass and chanting lyrics in a monotone voice and Chris Hakius on clean and crisp drumming duties. All songs are religious invocations that accompany unseen rituals that ease the appeals of humans to powerful gods of the air. In spite of the sparse technical set-up and the minimalist style in which the musicians play - Cisneros plays the same riffs over and over while he intones his lyrics and Hakius mostly sticks to time-keeping duties - the music is usually intense, brooding and majestic, thanks to subtle variations that the duo introduce gradually yet steadily. The level of concentration and intensity the two must sustain to keep the songs going - the first track is very long - must be immense.
"On the Mountain at Dawn" throws the listener right into the thick of things: there's no warm-up or warning or disclaimer offered at the beginning that we're embarking on a grand journey. Lyrics are intensely focused on the heavenward ascent of the shaman-swan: the vision of the singer is so vivid and clear that it is hard not to think that he may be the bird itself arising to the firmament. Imperceptibly the music speeds up towards its goal and this constant change, together with the busy nature of the bass and drums - even though they are repetitive, straightforward in delivery and slimmed-down sparse in style - gives the song a sense of purpose and some urgency. The chanting voice, monotonous in tone and style, and minimalist music can be mesmerising. By the time we've reached the last few minutes of "On the Mountain ...", the song is actually going quite fast and there is a fair bit of distorted sub-bass noise skree in the background; then it slows right down as our messenger is well on the way to reaching the goal and is welcomed by the sun's rays as he flies towards his focus.
"Kapila's Theme" may not have any rhythm or lead guitars either but the song has a strong muscular and crushing feel as it proceeds at a leisurely pace. Again the lyrics are an intense and vivid description of flight and again the song varies in pace and rhythm as required by the demands of the lyrics and the musicians' own needs as they progress through the song. It segues into "Annapurna" which compared to previous tracks is fairly fast-paced with an insistent cymbal beat and a snaking bass riff that goes round and round in its own circle. Halfway through, the song breaks into a more melodic and laid-back rhythm, and the bass and drums start playing as one unit instead of in parallel. There is a call-and-response interplay between Cisneros's vocal and the bass guitar which plays like lead guitar.
This is a very meditative and amazingly self-assured foray into stoner doom shamanism: Cisneros sings like a man possessed of unusual and prophetic visions and Hakius backs him up unerringly. The music is sharp much of the time in spite of the distorted bass; Hakius's drumming especially is very clean. Although the album is not long, there is a sense of a vast universe opening up behind it and listeners can feel the music going on and on forever. I get the impression that Cisneros and Hakius themselves are as much mesmerised by the music they play as we are listening to it ... they must be, to be able to play at the level of intensity and inspiration they do and keep it that way.
Om is a new stoner doom metal band consisting of two of the three members of the legendary stoner doom band Sleep. While guitarist Matt Pike left Sleep to form High on Fire, which has evolved towards a more traditional style of metal; bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius have continued the legacy that Sleep created while changing a few elements to make Om something original yet familiar to fans of Sleep.
This three song album feature only bass, vocals, and drums, there are no guitars. However, the massive amount of distortion on the bass makes this unnoticeable and the riffing is just as it would be if there were guitars on the album. The use of only one stringed instrument works to give the songs a more stripped down feel than Sleep had. The riffing can be compared to a mixture of the second and third Sleep albums, Sleep’s Holy Mountain and Dopesmoker, in the way that it is slow but not quite as oppressively heavy or epic as Dopesmoker. Despite this fact there is plenty of heaviness to be found in the fuzzed out 70s styled trance-inducing riffs that the bass churns out; these riffs are as slow and heavy as you’d expect from ex-members of Sleep.
Drum-wise this leans more towards Dopesmoker in the way the drums methodically plod forward and utilize the heavier cymbals to bring out the heaviness of selected parts. Drum production is also reminiscent of Dopesmoker in the natural and live feel that the drums breathe into the music. The vocals are reminiscent of the subdued parts of Sleep’s Holy Mountain; the hoarse stoned yells that appear on Dopesmoker are not present here. This subdued quality of the vocals makes them sound like sacred chants, thus adding to the overall ritualistic atmosphere the music invokes.
Overall this three song album that runs about 45 minutes long creates a ritualistic atmosphere full of stoner doom heaviness and fuzzed out riffing. Variations on a Theme establishes Om as a well-experienced band that that fans of stoner doom should not pass up. This is probably the closest you’ll come to hearing something new from Sleep and it does not disappoint.