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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.