I’m beginning to think those who lament Om’s stylistic changes since 2007’s Pilgrimage are somewhat missing the point. Yes, I miss the monolithic, stretches-your-sense-of-time-to-breaking-point heaviness of Variations on a Theme, their superlative debut, but as early as its follow-up, Conference of the Birds, they were toying at the frayed edges of this bone-crushing formula, with ‘At Giza’ being performed at a level best described as mellow, so this is by no means a new thing. In fact, from Pilgrimage-onwards, it’s hard to look at Om as a “metal” band at all, at least not in the simplest sense, although their approach seems to be pursuing the Sabbathian ethos much more intricately and determinedly than most of their contemporaries.
Perhaps the main focal point when approaching Om’s music should not be how “heavy” they are (or we think they should be) but the spiritual foundation that underpins their lyrics and use of instrumentation. If Variations On A Theme hinted at theological considerations, with tracks named ‘Kapila’s Theme’ and ‘Annapurna’, by Pilgrimage these had clearly anchored themselves at the core of what Al Cisneros and first Chris Hakius, then Emil Amos, were trying to express.
But, despite the Christian hagiography that adorns their last three albums, this spirituality is pan-global, with a kind of universality that sets them out from just about any band exploring faith and theology that I can think of. They are not doing a Julian Cope and centring their quest on pre-monotheist paganism, somehow perceiving it to be superior by virtue of not being monotheism. Nor are they following the path of psych-freaks and drone artists before them by merely looking to India and Tibet for enlightenment.
‘Addis’, the opening track of Advaitic Songs, features a female vocalist singing in Hindi, yet the track’s title evokes (intentionally or not), the capital of Ethiopia, land of Coptic Christianity and frequent reference point for Rastafarianism. The track in itself is beguiling and beautiful, the woman’s gorgeous voice supported by tablas, strings and Cisneros and Amos’ intricate rhythmic interplay. Whatever the intentions, ‘Addis’ aptly mirrors the album title and cover’s focus on theological philosophy, both Eastern (Advaita) and Western (Christian). Given how many Anglo-American musicians have seemed ridiculous when looking to exotic India or their Judeo-Christian roots for inspiration, you get the feeling that Om know their shit.
Interestingly, to these ears at least, one thing that stands out is that the strongest tracks on Advaitic Songs are the shortest ones, throwing off a trend dating back to their debut. Along with ‘Addis’, ‘State of Non-Return’ (is that their most “metal” track title ever?) represent a solid opening salvo, although where its predecessor is delicate and considered, with lilting piano notes and patient tambourine, ‘State of Non-Return’ hits like a hammer, a broiling, bass-heavy (Cisneros bass!) cruncher on which the duo’s rock-like take on sludge balances expertly with their current use of strings, with the latter emerging gracefully out of the rumble. Om’s first two albums were dominated by their references to bird flight and, if I can allow myself a dodgy metaphor, ‘State of Non-Return’ evokes the take off of a massive golden eagle.
In comparison, the three longer tracks that close the album feel more leaden, drifting somewhat between the wider sonic palette and their central rhythmic core, without finding proper momentum. Amos’ drumming is masterful, minimalist and measured, yet also supple and oddly funky, while the string arrangements carry the elegance and grace of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, without Om ever devolving into that band’s ram-it-down-your-throat pathos. But perhaps more surprising is Cisneros’ reticence to unleash the demonic fuzz of his bass, proof were it needed that he’s been the guiding force of Om’s evolution.
There are plenty of great moments across the latter half of Advaitic Songs (‘Gethsemane”s sombre drones, the moody choir and patient build-up on ‘Haqq al-Yaqin’), but it’s hard to pick out any time when it coalesces into the true majesty we know Om are capable of. Perhaps most telling is that, unlike even the much-maligned God Is Good, Advaitic Songs doesn’t feature one of the lengthy, insistent, sense-dissolving tracks they usually supply. Instead the tracks feel restrained and poetic, but not always very substantial. A pity, but at the same time, Advaitic Songs does reward multiple listens. It’s a subtle and meaningful album, with none of the immediacy of Variations on a Theme or Conference of the Birds, but nor is it a deviation from what Om have been exploring since the word “go”. It’s part of an ongoing reflection on humanity and spirituality, and few bands do that so well.
So yes, if you’re a Sleep fan, or a lover of Om’s first three albums wanting more of the same, Advaitic Songs will not make you forget God Is Good (slightly underrated, in my book). I myself will always reach for Variations On A Theme before this one. But if the only thing you garnered from Om’s early work is the word “heavy”, then you probably deserve to be disappointed. Om were always more than “heavy”.