Friday Full-Length: Om, Variations on a Theme

Posted in Bootleg Theater on January 11th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

Om, Variations on a Theme (2005)

Sometimes it feels like Om‘s 2005 debut, Variations on a Theme, gets forgotten about to some extent. At very least overshadowed by what the band has gone on to do with subsequent offerings. But I remember when Variations on a Theme came out. I still have the promo CD that came to what was then my office — because in 2005, things like “offices” and “promo CDs from labels” both existed — and I remember putting it on and being blown away by how unique the sound was. And 14 years later, it remains so. Om were by no means the first act to convey a sense of heavy without massive guitar riffs belting you in the face, but the patterning of Al Cisneros‘ vocals and the sheer barrage of his opaque lyrics, the depth of his bass tone and the unmitigated swing and inimitable movement in the drums of Chris Hakius came together in a way that forced one to recognize that, yes, this was something new. And for as mellow as the overarching spirit of Variations on a Theme was and is, it was new. And it was heavy.

On the most basic level, a duo was rarer. The most immediate association was a pop group like The White Stripes, who had taken the overblown sound of stadium rock and stripped it to its essential hooks and core attitude. Were Om doing the same thing to the idea of heavy music? Maybe, to a point. But their project on the three-song/45-minute Holy Mountain-released long-player was different — more exploratory. More spiritual, and less about plunging to the center of a thing than emerging outward from it. Cisneros and Hakius were both refugees from the then-defunct Sleep, who’d broken up years before but whose grand opus, Dopesmoker (discussed here), had finally seen release in 2003 through Tee Pee Records. It would be a few years still before the social media generation that brought Sleep to their stoner-lordly stature really came to prominence, but even then, the name of course resonated.

And Variations on a Theme felt like an outgrowth of some of what Sleep had done in that final, single-song LP. “On the Mountain at Dawn” (21:19), “Kapila’s Theme” (11:59) and “Annapurna” (11:53) indeed were longform pieces — not an hour long, but long — and their lyrics cast an impression born from philosophy texts and mythological traditions, patterned to coincide with tantric, mesmerizing basslines for a meditative feel worthy of the band’s name. It’s been 14 years and I still have no idea what’s going on in the repeated verse of “Annapurna”:

The flight to freedom gradient raise the called ascendant
And reach supreme the coalesced eye into surrender
Centripetal core of soul sojourn the field vibrates to absolution
I climb toward the sun to breathe the universal

om variations on a themeBut that last line is key. It’s the only lyric on Variations on a Theme that’s in first-person. All of “On the Mountain at Dawn” is in implied-third. There are no pronouns used, but the verb forms are “he does” or “she does.” “Kapila’s Theme” could be first or second or third, it’s never clear, but the line “I climb toward the sun to breathe the universal,” with later becomes “I climb toward the sun to breathe the indrawn universal,” conveys both the sense of pilgrimage — which would become an ongoing theme for the band — and the ritual smoke that seemed to be rising from the album itself as it played. As vague as its lyrics may have been, they were like an unearthed text, full of references and turns of phrase that would take years to be understood if they ever were.

Dopesmoker had that sense of journey, but there was a clearer narrative taking place as well. Variations on a Theme found Cisneros like an out-of-body prophet spewing lines that would either predict the flow of the universe or be lost to some other interpretation. But the transitional moment could be heard in more than just the lyrics or the cleaner vocal style. It’s in the tone. Working with producer Billy Anderson — who’d also helmed Sleep‘s studio material — Om centered around its tone in a way that a band with a guitar never could. After a short blip of feedback, “On the Mountain at Dawn” unfurled a sound that managed to be both full in its distortion and still somehow minimalist, understated. The bass tone was low, and dirty, but gorgeous, and it was fluid enough to shift from lumbering to rolling alongside Hakius‘ ping-ride groove at a moment’s notice, the kick drum adding an underlying sense of activity that gave the whole thing its forward motion.

It wouldn’t be the last time Om used a distorted tone, but as they moved forward from their debut with Conference of the Birds (discussed here) in 2006, they introduced a cleaner sound and would only continue to branch out from there. Following splits with Current 93 and Six Organs of Admittance, in 2007 they released Pilgrimage, which would be their final album with Hakius on drums. Replacing half a duo is no minor change, but Cisneros brought in Emil Amos — also of GrailsHoly Sons and a number of other projects — and on 2009’s God is Good (review here) introduced not only Amos, but a broader feel that included multi-instrumentalist Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, also of Lichens. By the time they got around to 2012’s Advaitic Songs (review here), Om were a trio, the arrangements had never been so grand, and the resulting work remains one of the best albums of this decade. Seven years after the fact, one anxiously awaits a follow-up.

Of course, Cisneros has been plenty busy with the Sleep reunion and, last year, their own long-awaited studio album, The Sciences (review here), but just as that record showed up with a day’s advance notice, suddenly dropped on an unsuspecting public after years of rumors and “yeah it’s happening”-kinds of updates, it’s hard not to hope 2019 produces something similar from CisnerosAmos and Lowe with Om. Last I heard, songs were being done in somewhat piecemeal fashion, but either way, if Advaitic Songs demonstrated anything plainly, it’s that Om had much more to offer, so if it takes them a while to manifest that, there’s little doubt it will be worth that wait.

And however far they might continue to move beyond what now seems like their rudimentary beginnings on Variations on a Theme, they’re still to some degree living out the title of their debut, exploring the outer reaches of the journey that those three songs set in motion.

As always, I hope you enjoy.

I keep hearing phantom baby shouts from upstairs. He’s not really up yet — he will be soon; it’s quarter-to-six –but my brain is so trained at this point that I hear him when he’s not really yelling. It’s a bird outside, or it’s the house settling in some way. It’s the wind. It’s something. Whatever it is, it’s not the baby yet. But again, we’ll get there momentarily.

Accordingly, I should probably keep this short. We’re still in New Jersey — The Patient Mrs., The Pecan and I — and that feels like something of a godsend. I do not look forward to going back north to Massachusetts, which will happen I think after next weekend, but whatever. Gotta go. The Patient Mrs. gotta make that money so I can continue to spend it on custom coffee blends, peanut butter and Sandra Boynton board books.

I’m going to write another children’s book by the way. About the purple octopus that has kind of become this site’s mascot. I named her Petunia. I’m thinking Petunia The Octopus Joins the Band. If you want to illustrate it, let me know, because I’m useless at that stuff. Could be a fun project.

Next week is pretty packed though. I guess the music industry went back to work this week, which is fair enough, because the PR wire started up again and my calendar got pretty full. Here are the notes, subject to change blah blah:

MON 01/14 King Witch video premiere; Glory in the Shadows video premiere.
TUE 01/15 BUS track premiere; Lumbar video.
WED 01/16 Nebula Drag video; another possible premiere.
THU 01/17 Ian Blurton’s Future Now track premiere.
FRI 01/18 Hibrido LP stream; Yawning Man live review.

On the side of that, I also have two bios to write and I just signed on for a bunch of announcements for Desertfest London, because later this month they’re going to bring a bunch more kickass bands on board. Today I also need to finish putting together the playlist for the next episode of ‘The Obelisk Show’ on Gimme Radio, which will be my 2019 preview. There’s a lot of good stuff in the coming months. It was pretty easy to pick bands. Just need songs now.

And sure enough, the baby’s up.

That’s my cue.

Please have a great and safe weekend, and please don’t forget to check out the Forum, the Radio stream and Obelisk shirts and whatnot at Dropout merch. Thanks for reading.

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Quarterly Review: Steve Von Till, Devil Worhsipper, Dr. Crazy, Linie, The Heavy Minds, Against the Grain, Angel Eyes, Baron, Creedsmen Arise, Deadly Sin (Sloth)

Posted in Reviews on September 28th, 2015 by JJ Koczan

the-obelisk-quarterly-review-fall-2015

Truth be told, I’ve been looking forward to this Quarterly Review since the last one ended. Not necessarily since it clears the deck on reviews to be done — it doesn’t — but just because I feel like in any given week there’s so much more that I want to get to than I’m usually able to fit into posting that it’s been good to be able to say, “Well I’ll do another Quarterly Review and include it there.” Accordingly, there are some sizable releases here, today and over the next four days as well.

If you’re unfamiliar with the project, the idea is over the course of this week, I’ll be reviewing 50 different releases — full albums, EPs, demos, comps, splits, vinyl, tape, CD, digital, etc. Most of them have come out since the last Quarterly Review, which went up early in July, but some are still slated for Oct. or Nov. issue dates. Best to mix it up. My hope is that within this barrage of info, art and music, you’re able to find something that stands out to you and that you enjoy deeply. I know I’ll find a few by the time we’re done on Friday.

Fall 2015 Quarterly Review #1-10:

Steve Von Till, A Life unto Itself

steve von till a life unto itself

A new Steve Von Till solo outing isn’t a minor happening in any circumstances, but A Life unto Itself reads more like a life event than an album. As ever, the Neurosis guitarist/vocalist puts a full emotional breadth into his material, and as it’s his first record in seven years since 2008’s A Grave is a Grim Horse, there’s plenty to say. Sometimes minimal, sometimes arranged, sometimes both, the seven tracks feature little of the psychedelic influence Von Till brought to his Harvestman project, but use lap steel, strings, electrics, acoustics, keys and of course his meditative, gravelly voice to convey a broad spectrum nonetheless, and cuts like “Chasing Ghosts,” “In Your Wings” and the centerpiece “Night of the Moon” (which actually does veer into the ethereal, in its way) are all the more memorable for it. The richness of “A Language of Blood” and the spaciousness of the drone-meets-sea-shanty closer “Known but Not Named” only underscore how far Von Till is able to range, and how satisfying the results can be when he does.

Steve Von Till on Thee Facebooks

Steve Von Till at Neurot Recordings

Devil Worhsipper, Devil Worhsipper

devil worshipper devil worshipper

Bizarro vibes pervade Devil Worshipper’s debut LP, Devil Worshipper, what may or may not be a one-man project from Jeff Kahn (ex-Hideous Corpse, Skeleton of God; spelled here as Jevf Kon), mixed by Tad Doyle and released on Holy Mountain. Based in Seattle (that we do know), the project wields molten tones and slow groove to classic underground metal, heavy psych and bleary moods to hit into oddly cinematic moodiness on “Ash Brume” and even nod at Celtic Frost from a long ways away on closer “Lurker (Death).” Most of the drums are programmed, save for “New Spirit World Order,” “Ash Brume” and “Lurker,” but either way, they only add to the weirdness of the chanting layered vocals of “New Spirit World Order,” and just when it seems like eight-minute second track “Chemrails” will have been as far out as Devil Worshipper gets, side B’s “Desert Grave” takes hold for a five-minute dirge that turns out to be one of the record’s most satisfying rolls, reminiscent of something Rob Crow might’ve done with Goblin Cock on downers. Unexpected and living well in its own space, the album manages to be anchored by its lead guitar work without seeming anchored at all.

Devil Worshpper on Thee Facebooks

Devil Worshipper at Holy Mountain

Dr. Crazy, 1,000 Guitars

dr crazy 1000 guitars

So, how many guitars on London trio Dr. Crazy’s 13-minute/four-song EP, 1,000 Guitars? Two, I think. The side-project of Groan vocalist Andreas “Mazzereth” Maslen and Chris West, formerly the drummer of Trippy Wicked and Stubb who here plays guitar and bass while Groan’s former guitarist Mike Pilat handles drums, make a bid for the possibility of playing live in bringing in Pilat to fill the role formerly occupied remotely by Tony Reed of Mos Generator on their 2014 debut EP, Demon Lady. Whether that happens will remain to be seen, but they affirm their ‘80s glam leanings on “Bikini Woman” and keep the message simple on opener “Hands off My Rock and Roll” while “1,000 Guitars” makes the most of guest lead work from Stubb’s Jack Dickinson – he’s the second guitar, alongside West – and yet another infectious Mazzereth-led hook, and well, “Mistress of Business” starts out by asking the titular lady to pull down her pants, so, you know, genius-level satire ensues.

Dr. Crazy on Thee Facebooks

Dr. Crazy on Bandcamp

Linie, What We Make Our Demons Do

linie what we make our demons do

An aggressive core lies beneath the progressivism of German five-piece Linie (actually written as ?inie) on their debut full-length, What We Make Our Demons Do, but the material holds a sense of atmosphere as well. Vocalist/guitarist Jörn is very much at the fore of post-intro opener “Blood on Your Arms,” but as the crux of the album plays out on the chug-happy “Lake of Fire” and “No Ideal,” Linie showcase a wider breadth and bring together elements of post-hardcore à la Fugazi, darker heavy rock and purposefully brooding metal. Comprised of Jörn, guitarist/vocalist Alex, bassist/vocalist Ralph, drummer/vocalist Alex and keyboardist Iggi, the band impress on their first offering with not only how assured they seem of their aesthetic, but the expansive manner in which they present it. Their songwriting is varied in approach but unified in mood and while I don’t know what has them so pissed off on a cut like “Inability,” there’s no question whether they’re putting that anger to good use.

Linie on Thee Facebooks

Linie on Bandcamp

The Heavy Minds, Treasure Coast

the heavy minds treasure coast

Austrian trio The Heavy Minds make their full-length debut on Stone Free with Treasure Coast, a seven-cut LP that fuzzes up ‘70s swing without going the full-Graveyard in retro vibe. “You’ve Seen it Coming” seems to nod at Radio Moscow, but a more overarching vibe seems to share ideology with Baltimore three-piece The Flying Eyes, the classic rock sensibilities given natural presentation through a nonetheless modern feel in the tracks. The bass tone of Tobias (who also plays guitar at points) alone makes Treasure Coast worth hunting down, but doesn’t prove to be the limit of what the young outfit have to offer, drummer Christoph swinging fluidly throughout “Diamonds of Love” in a manner that foreshadows the emergent roll of “Seven Remains.” That song is part of a closing duo with “Fire in My Veins,” which boasts a satisfying bluesy howl from guitarist Lukas, rounding out Treasure Coast with an organic openness that suits the band well.

The Heavy Minds on Thee Facebooks

Stone Free

Against the Grain, Road Warriors

against the grain road warriors

Momentum is key when it comes to Road Warriors, the new full-length from Detroit four-piece Against the Grain. They amass plenty of it as they thrust into the 12-track/38-minute rager of an outing, but there are changes to be had in tempo if not necessarily intent. Comprised of bassist/vocalist Chris Nowak, guitarist/vocalist Kyle Davis, guitarist Nick Bellomo and drummer Rob Nowak, the band actually seems more comfortable on fifth-gear cuts like “’Til We Die,” “What Happened,” the first half of “Afraid of Nothing” or the furious “Run for Your Life” than they do in the middle-ground of “Guillotine” and “Night Time,” but slowing down on “Sirens” and “Eyes” allows them to flex a more melodic muscle, and that winds up enriching the album in subtle and interesting ways. If you want a clue as to the perspective from which they’re working, they start with “Here to Stay” and end with “Nothing Left to Lose.” Everything between feels suitably driven by that mission statement.

Against the Grain on Thee Facebooks

Against the Grain on Bandcamp

Angel Eyes, Things Have Learnt to Walk that Ought to Crawl

angel-eyes-things-have-learnt-to-walk-that-ought-to-crawl

With the ‘t’ and the ‘ought’ in its title, Angel Eyes’ posthumous third full-length, Things Have Learnt to Walk that Ought to Crawl, brims with oddly rural threat. Like the things are people. The Chicago outfit unfold two gargantuan cascades of atmosludge on “Part I” (15:54) and “Part II” (19:18), pushing their final recording to toward and beyond recommended minimums and maximums as regards intensity. They called it quits in 2011, so to have the record surface four years later and be as blindsidingly cohesive as it is actually makes it kind of a bummer, since it won’t have a follow-up, but the work Angel Eyes are doing across these two tracks – “Part I” getting fully blown-out before shifting into the quiet opening of “Part II” – justifies the time it’s taken for it to be released. They were signed to The Mylene Sheath, but Things is an independent, digital-only outing for the time being, though its structure and cover feel ripe for vinyl. Who knows what the future might bring.

Angel Eyes on Thee Facebooks

Angel Eyes on Bandcamp

Baron, Torpor

baron torpor

Textured, hypnotic and downright gorgeous in its psychedelic melancholy, Baron’s Torpor is a record that a select few will treasure deeply and fail to understand the problem as to why the rest of the planet isn’t just as hooked. A thoroughly British eight-track full-length – their second, I believe, but first for SvartTorpor creates and captures spaces simultaneously on organ-infused pieces like “Mark Maker,” executing complex transitions fluidly and feeding into an overarching ambience that, by the time they get around to the eight-minute “Stry,” is genuinely affecting in mood and beautifully engrossing. The Brighton/Nottingham four-piece fuzz out a bit on “Deeper Align,” but the truth is that Torpor has much more to offer than a single genre encapsulates and those that miss it do so to their own detriment. I mean that. Its patience, its poise and its scope make Torpor an utter joy of progressive flourish and atmosphere with a feel that is entirely its own. I could go on.

Baron on Thee Facebooks

Baron at Svart Records

Creedsmen Arise, Temple

creedsmen arise temple

So get this. For their first EP, Swedish trio Creedsmen Arise – guitarist Emil, drummer Simon and bassist Gustaf (since replaced by Jonte) – have taken it upon themselves to pen a sequel to Sleep’s Dopesmoker that, “tells the story about what happened centuries after the Dopesmoker Caravan and it’s [sic] Weedians reached their destination.” Admirably ballsy terrain for the three-piece to tread their first time out. It’s like, “Oh hey, here’s my first novel – it’s Moby Dick from the whale’s perspective.” The three tracks of the Temple EP are fittingly schooled in Iommic studies, but the band almost undercuts itself because they don’t just sound like Sleep. They have their own style. Yeah, it’s riffy stoner metal, but it’s not like they’re doing an Al Cisneros impression on vocals, so while the concept is derived directly, the sound doesn’t necessarily completely follow suit. Between the 10-minute opening title- and longest-track (immediate points), “Herbal Burial” and “Circle of Clergymen,” Creedsmen Arise make perhaps a more individualized statement than they intended, but it’s one that bodes well.

Creedsmen Arise on Thee Facebooks

Creedsmen Arise on Bandcamp

Deadly Sin (Sloth), Demo Discography

deadly sin (sloth) demo discography

Nola’s cool and all, but when it comes to the nastiest, most misanthropic, fucked-up sludge, choosy moms choose Ohio, and Deadly Sin (Sloth) are a potent example of why. Their Demo Discography tape revels in its disconcerting extremity and seems to grind regardless of whether the Xenia, OH, trio are actually playing fast. Comprised of Jay Snyder, Wilhelm Princeton and Kyle Hughes, Deadly Sin (Sloth) cake themselves in mud that will be familiar to anyone who’s witnessed Fistula on a bender or Sloth at their most pill-popping, but do so with sub-lo-fi threat on the tape and are so clearly intentional in their effort to put the listener off that one could hardly call their demos anything but a victory. Will not be for everyone, but of course that’s the idea. This kind of viciousness is a litmus test that would do justice to any basement show, maddening in its nod and mean well beyond the point of reason.

Deadly Sin (Sloth) on Thee Facebooks

Deadly Sin (Sloth) on Bandcamp

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Friday Full-Length: Om, Conference of the Birds

Posted in Bootleg Theater on September 28th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

Om, Conference of the Birds (2006)

2:14AM — Yeah, it’s pretty late. I left North Jersey at almost precisely 8PM to head back up here to Massachusetts, but made a stop off in New London, Connecticut, at the El ‘n’ Gee to catch Clamfight play a set. They were starting that weekender with Philly’s Thee Nosebleeds, whom I was also fortunate enough to see some of, and were killer as always in that cavernous room. I was only there for about an hour — the timing was absurdly good — but that hour was the difference between getting back to Abington at 12:30 and 1:30AM. So here I am. It’s good to see The Patient Mrs., even if she has a pillow over her head while I’m playing Om‘s 2006 sophomore outing, Conference of the Birds, which I consider one of the best late-night albums ever made.

It must’ve been a trip for Al Cisneros to put out this and Variations on a Theme through a label named Holy Mountain — “So, your records are out on a label that just happens to have the same name as an album you put out over a decade ago?” “Yup.” — but very cool. I like where Om are at now sound-wise very, very much, but I remember hearing the first two records when they came out and you just knew they were something special. I don’t listen to Variations on a Theme as much as Conference of the Birds, admittedly, but still, what a pair they make. And High on Fire was putting out Blessed Black Wings and Death is this Communion at that point. And then a couple years later Sleep got back together and started doing shows again. Sometimes time is beautiful.

Tomorrow is my anniversary, or later today or whatever it is. My wedding anniversary was the other day as well — I left in the evening to head south in order to catch Vista Chino on Thursday (ever the romantic), but tomorrow’s the one we celebrate more, which is when we first got together, a whopping 16 years ago. I’m 31, which means The Patient Mrs. and I have been together more than half my life. It’s awesome and it blows my mind. I’m so stupid for her and I’m so lucky she has yet to kick my ass to the curb; she casts off the constant bombardment of reasons to do so like meteors burning up in the atmosphere, and for that I consider myself blessed.

So I’m looking forward to some sort of celebration — we’re light on cash these days, but we’ll have a meal, anyway — and then Sunday I’m interviewing Fu Manchu‘s Bob Balch about his new Sun and Sail Club project (info here) with Scott Reeder (Fu Manchu‘s drummer) and Scott Reeder (The Obsessed/Kyuss) and I’ll have that posted on Monday, along with hopefully a review of the Clamfight show I hit tonight and a track premiere from Louisville noise punkers Black God. Lots of audio to come next week, actually. Hoping to hook up a Gonga stream for Tuesday, and then Wednesday is also a track premiere from Brooklyn trio Blackout, whose album I’ve been digging plenty. Between all that and reviews of The Freeks and Luder, it’s going to be a busy one. You’d think I might want to rest up.

There was more I wanted to get posted today, but with the drive north looming, writing the aforelinked Vista Chino review and some spiritually restorative family time — hard to tell your 98-year-old grandmother you gotta cut short hanging out with her so you can go post somebody’s tour news and I wasn’t going to try — the hours went quickly. Wish I could say the same for the drive north, but so it goes. The good news is I made it eventually and I’ll get caught up this weekend on email and whatever else. For now the eyelids are heavy, the album’s over and it’s time to turn in.

As always, I wish you a great and safe weekend. I’ll be back with more Monday at the latest and in the meantime, please hit up the forum and the radio stream:

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