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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