For many, it is all too easy to take shots at God rock. Sacred music has not traditionally depended on the evaluative opinion of a secular audience, and the commercial religious music industries (especially Christian pop/rock) often unfavorably compare to non-religious music in attempts to become relevant to the largest audience possible. The competition for mainstream listeners reveals unintended effects: production values seem to lack character, fashions are a season too late, and earnest lyrics fail to connect with differing worldviews. These well-meaning but conflicted approaches result in something lukewarm by dressing the message in ill-fitting forms.
Purists would say there should be no attempt to look like the rest of the world, because the underlying spiritual conviction of such music should be of foremost importance. That idea is supported by the fact that most of the world’s religious music has endured and evolved in an untouched manner that does not require the approval of record labels, press, or outlying listeners. Acknowledging these contradictions, Douglas Howe at the Beliefnet blog describes the industry as a self-defeating “Holy Huddle”, and writes that “The best and brightest of musicians … ought to be playing to audiences of all backgrounds, and the music should stand up against anything else that’s out there.” In other words, he argues that artists should ensure both the tunes and the message are in top shape before attempting to compete.
Looking beyond the visible Christian Music scene—and therefore under the radar—there are a few contemporary artists from a variety of religious standpoints that go a long way towards answering this wide range of criticisms. Acts like Current 93, Black Ox Orkestar, and Raghu Dixit combine meaningful message, unique style, and excellent execution. The best current example is In Principio, by the inimitable Arvo Pärt, which sacrifices nothing in the area of spiritual devotion, yet opens up in the most staggering ways to listeners of any religious (or irreligious) persuasion. On to the specific subject of this review, the band Om represents a significant component in this antidote to the thorny crossroads of expression, production, and reception in contemporary religious music.
The disbanding of Sleep resulted in two acts that have each taken a worthy turn. Matt Pike’s High on Fire has kept the thrash metal flag flying over the course of several albums that manage to out-Motörhead even Motörhead. Conversely, Al Cisneros’s Om has over the years continued to refine Sleep’s Gnostic riffage into meditative, increasingly delicate bass guitar and drum compositions. Om’s drawn-out, repeated riffs might be fairly labeled simplistic, but it is more accurate to classify them as ascetic. On an earlier Om album like Variations on a Theme, Cisneros and fellow sonic titan, drummer Chris Haikus, locked into a colossal trance-inducing lockstep built from only two instruments. Despite this minimal setup, Variations on a Theme adhered to Sunn 0)))‘s aphorism that “maximum volume yields maximum results”.
But with successive releases—the first half of Conference of the Birds, and long stretches of Pilgrimage—Om experimented with a mellower, quieter mode that gave more attention to the mystical lyrical content. It is as if at some point Cisneros realized that occasionally dialing down the aggression of the music would make his spiritual passion more evident. That impulse proved to be a great decision on Pilgrimage, especially with “Bhima’s Theme”, which excitingly raised Lazarus from the dead through a loud-quiet-loud interplay of chant and riff. On new album God Is Good, that change of approach continues to add fresh shades, most of which enliven the material and deepen the vibratory experience.
Recorded by Steve Albini, God Is Good is in many ways “fuller” than other Om releases. On opening track “Thebes”, Om adds a tamboura to its instrumental arsenal. The resultant drone provides a nice bed over which Cisneros plays in the Pilgrimage mode. “Thebes” slowly builds to include vocals, some light percussion, bowed strings, and a drum kit played by Emil Amos (Haikus is out of the band, but Amos proves to be a worthy replacement on drums). The trouble with the 19-minute “Thebes” is that the introduction, while appropriately mood-establishing, feels unnecessarily protracted. That might seem like an unreasonable complaint when evaluating an album from a musician whose history includes songs that exceed an hour in length. Yet the comparative weaknesses of the first half of “Thebes” become clear around minute nine, when Cisneros plugs in to “Kapila’s Theme”-style bass and Amos injects unexpectedly lively yet regimented rhythms. The song’s second half, divided into two sections, is so superior to the preparatory drone that one wonders why Cisneros and Amos lingered quite so long on what was merely the setup to the proper song.
The remaining three songs benefit from more judicious editing and lose none of their power as jams. “Meditation Is the Practice of Death” displays Amos’s more active drumming, but his fills mostly accent, rather than overwhelm, the slow-burn energy of the song. A flute played by Lorraine Rath closes the song, dancing around the undulations of the bass and representing the ever-higher consciousness Om hopes to reach. Lyrically, Cisneros gets quite specific with religious allusions, taking the listener on a trip with John the Baptist and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In keeping with the press release’s reference to comparative religion, these references nicely complement the album’s other mentions of minarets and ghats.
Perhaps the most unexpected flourishes on God Is Good occur in the final two tracks, “Cremation Ghat I” and “Cremation Ghat II”. While Om normally inspires nodding and swaying, “Cremation Ghat I” is the sound of the band calling you to dance. Handclaps, a bass groove that wouldn’t be out of place in a funk number, and Amos’s syncopated, freed drumming add a palpable physicality to the band’s spiritual ritual. The tamboura returns on “Cremation Ghat II”, which is a hypnotic, concise comedown that corrects the indulgence of “Thebes” as it leaves the listener wanting more.
God Is Good reflects its stated conviction. It is important to note that the listener does not have to adhere to the “mystic path” Om follows in order to appreciate the quality of the album. The band acknowledges as much in the press release: “It’s true that the one way pursued by Om leads in many different directions.” But there is no denying that those who are predisposed to be moved by sacred music will have an additional level of engagement with Om’s variation here. And if more church music sounded like what Cisneros, Amos, and Albini achieve on God Is Good, then maybe those pews would be a little fuller, too.