Posted by: Necci – Jul 16, 2012
It can sometimes be hard to tell how self-referential bands are being with their titling, but the newest Om release seems to suggest that their nomenclature is an attempt at some fusion of the philosophical and the aesthetic. With a title referencing a Hindu school of thought predicated on the unity of the individual and universal spirits, the album seems to apply the same seamless lack of duality to their musical approach. While Advaitic Songs might at first seem wildly divergent from the droning bass-and-drum doom of their earliest albums, it also maintains a similar hypnotic quality, an expansive, atmospheric quilt of sounds that seems to exist outside of specific cultural and temporal circumstances – so simultaneously minimalist and maximalist, inward and outward looking, that such distinctions (as their newest album title suggests) can be rendered moot.
Much of the shift in Om's sound can be traced to the 2008 replacement of original drummer Chris Haikus with Emil Amos of Grails. The former's style seemed almost like a percussive mantra, a subtle yet insistent pulse, plowing ahead as steady and unobtrusive as a heartbeat. Amos, on the other hand, brought to the table his other band's penchant for pan-cultural psychedelia, a spirited energy that's not remotely as restrained as that displayed by early Om albums, but makes for a far more compelling listen. Gone is Al Cisneros' repetetive bass meandering, replaced here (as on 2009's God Is Good, though it is far better developed on their new album) with a wide variety of textures that convey upon the album a diverse sonic palette, one in which disparate elements combine into a cohesive whole that may seem unlikely on paper, but works masterfully. Only the album's second song, “State Of Non-Return,” attempts the metallic clangor on which the band had relied for previous albums, but even in that instance the heavy low-end quickly gives way to quieter orchestral elements. Opener “Addis” sets a tone that's more representative of the album as a whole, with a Vedic mantra sung over an accompaniment of cello and minimal percussion. It's a mood that's sustained consistently, with a mysterious air that never quite allows its inherent darkness to become morose or overwhelming.
Though it had been making itself known on the band's recent releases, Advaitic Songs is the best example of the band's ability to pull together fairly disparate influences without seeming like they're co-opting anything. The raga elements, the neo-classical flourishes, and the loose-limbed psychedelia and stoner metal elements all could seem like cheap window dressing, well-intentioned but shallow exotica, in lesser hands. But Om blends it all deftly, re-contextualizing bits of their varied influences in a way that's beholden to no specific culture or era, instead taking these ideas and making them very much their own.
Conceptually, the influences doesn't always seem quite as smoothly integrated. Titles primarily reference Biblical components (“Gethsemane,” “Sinai,” “State Of Non-Return”), with a sharp deviation for the last track, “Haqq Al-Yaqin,” a reference to the Sufi belief in a point at which the experiential and the conceptual meld into one, the thinker and the thought existing inextricably. The lyrics, rife wih all the arcane references that listeners have come to expect from Cisneros, don't really clarify matters much. It's difficult to tell if the band is attempting to show some cross-cultural commonality, if they're ruminating on the currents that underpin the vast majority of religious and philosophical thought, or if there's some other intention at work. However, this vagueness isn't at all a bad thing. If Om had attempted to lay out their conceptual side in a more clearly-articulated fashion, it very easily could have come off didactic and dry. A little ambiguity keeps the music mysterious, with hazy ideas intermingling and receding, indistinct but expansive nonetheless.
The irony is that, for a band so smart, so omnivorous in their musical and philosophical influences, Om is best experienced by ignoring analytical interpretation of what they do. Their music, though it holds up under close scrutiny, casts a hypnotic spell, an ever-unfurling web of sounds best experienced in a dimly-lit room sitting in front of large speakers. Hypnotic yet devastating, Advaitic Songs is the sound of a band gracefully moving far afield of their past without betraying their essence, and is easily the best Om release to date.
By Graham Scala