Possibly the heaviest band to ever receive a Goldie from the Guardian, Om consists of drummer Chris Hakius and bass player Al Cisneros, who met in high school in the ’80s and have been playing on-and-off together ever since. Along with guitarist Matt Pike, Hakius and Cisneros formed the landmark ’90s stoner doom–Sabbath worship metal band Sleep, which you better know all about by now.
A couple years ago, after a fairly long hiatus from playing music, Hakius and Cisneros began working together again. The pair eventually named their project Om, as an outlet for the things, good and bad, that drive them. Working within the parameters of a single bass and drum setup, with alternately creepy and prayerful space-chant vocals, Om makes music that's as loud as all hell, repetitive to the point of inducing meditation, and tough to categorize. The first, most obvious genre it'd be nice to cram the band into would have to be doom metal, but without most of the aesthetic trappings of metal — guitar leads, screaming, lyrical negativity — Om doesn't fall easily into it.
"The songs are sonic reports of where we're at," Cisneros told me over the phone. "The work is an exteriorization of our thoughts and perspectives. There is movement, and nothing is fixed in time. Being open to the inflow when it visits is principally the process of songwriting for us. Instruments are the bridges over which the expressions may be carried. All the instruments: drums, bass, voice, mind, heart, soul, spirit, and the physical organism of the human body."
Huh? Heavy-duty ideas, but that's the thing that has always set Om apart. When the band first appeared in 2004 with Variations on a Theme, listeners didn't exactly know how to react. There are plenty of bands messing with the idea of creating a separate reality through heavy repetition and slo-mo tempos, but few attack their work with the single-mindedness of Om. The bass lines change gradually over the course of 20-minute pieces. There are no explosive guitar solos or major tempo shifts. Om’s two albums have only three lengthy songs each, and their lyrics are eternally inscrutable, vibing inner peace or at least the search for inner peace amid chaos.
Om's new album, A Conference of Birds, is slightly more accessible than Variations in that the songs are a little more dynamic. Instead of two main changes in each, there are several, and they follow a more traditional structure, even if it remains veiled. "Birds introduces the idea of subtlety to Om," explains John Whitson, who put both Om records out on his Holy Mountain label. "And while it is a departure from the first album, it's better." When asked about how the band fits into the musical landscape today, Whitson replied, "They're like those cave paintings discovered at Chauvet in France, considered the very first ever made. They've always been here — the music has always been here.
"Om is just picking note patterns out of the universe and playing them really fucking loud." (Mike McGuirk)