The walls stand silently in a temple that’s been long forgotten. The night surrounding the ancient pillars of this place is pierced by the glow of a subtle fire in its pit. Pitched and swirling amid the smoke and haze of colossal statues is a ceaseless chanting. The source is a priest and a drummer. They are the flowing blood and the heart beat of the gods they wish to keep alive. When the music begins and burns, these musicians/artists/servants have no names, no identities. They are simply one word, Om. Outside of this aura, Om is Al Cisneros on bass and vocals and drummer Chris Haikus.
Om’s history is as fittingly epic as their music. The band was formed from the break-up of Sleep, one of the most profound bands to ever step foot into the genre of stoner rock. I use the term “stoner rock” casually but don’t cast Sleep or Om aside as a bunch of pot-smoking hippies plucking strings and banging pots in their garage. Their music has defined the genre of doom metal and Om is certainly expanding upon that theme. Om’s third and most recent studio release, Pilgrimage, is a testament to how easily the music can coax you into a hypnotic sleep and then without a warning dunk your body into an icy cold reawakening. In the end, all you can do is keep your head above the water and get lost in the ocean of grooves.
The title track “Pilgrimage” is the opener for the album. It becomes clear after a matter of seconds that Om is all about creating an atmosphere. The bass line sounds like an ancient hymn composed from times when continents looked nothing like they do now. The soft entrance of bells and drums add to the scene of an abandoned temple. With such limited tools, the members of Om create a sound and a mood, which would falter otherwise. The quota of bass, drums, and rhythmic bells are essential to the spiritual context of their music. The soothing vocals on Pilgrimage are equally befitting their sound. On the first track they are soft and patient, adding a dimension of psychedelia to the song, but this is the subtle spell that is cast from the start of the album.
“Unitive Knowledge of the Godhead” is the second track and it is one of the major highlights of the album. It starts with a foreboding arrhythmic distorted bass. It can only be described as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse preparing their weapons and fixing on their unfeeling faces and stoic smiles. There is a soft bass line, which grows and grows and then the black, comet ridden clouds shear in half and the horsemen are loosed upon the earth. At that instant, the volume explodes and a gorgeously doomed riff cuts through the ominous air. It felt like I had just woken up in a land of gray, rainy desolation. I slowly turn around, trying to find the horizon and the sun. Then the bass and drums blast open the gates of heaven and hell and I stand facing the Four Horsemen, tall as mountains. My friend literally fell out of his chair when he heard this song. Still does.
Pligrimage is doom metal, and about half of the album has a dark undercurrent to it, but try listening to it while driving on the highway on a sunny day. It seems like the polar opposite of that whole darkened temple idea, and it really is. Like Pilgrimage, Om’s previous album, Conference of the Birds also has an enlightening side to it. The third track illustrates this dichotomy well. It begins aggressively, with a loud bass line, Haikus’ ceaseless drums, and Cisneros stoically repeating the same chant in the same intonations. It’s like being in the thick of battle, and so the song is aptly named “Bhima’s Theme”, after the great warrior in Hindu mythology. With every bar the music gets seamlessly slower until finally everything stops…the flurry of arrows in the sky, the oncoming attackers, the beating drums…everything except for the endless flow of the bass guitar. We hear the vocals pierce the again silent temple. Soon, all that matters are the words of the priest. The lyrics are calling to a greater being, for redemption and ultimate knowledge as Cisneros drones. “Extol the solar rays / Arise, Consolidate on winds/ The Chariot”. It’s been something repeated throughout the entire song, but only within the two minutes of quiet can you really hear the meaning.
One major factor that helps Pilgrimage stand out from the rest of Om’s albums is the quality of sound. If this was a deterrent for you in Om’s previous work, give Pilgrimage a listen. Then re-listen to their other albums. Then do it all over again. It definitely takes some time to get into Om, but don’t let impatience hinder you from experiencing the epic combination of peace and chaos that Al Cisneros and Chris Haikus convey through their music.
// Notes from the Road
"A-WA's debut album Habib Galbi made NPR Music's '30 Favorite Albums of 2016 (So Far)' list.READ the article