It hardly seems coincidental that the two major bands fronted by Al Cisneros — Sleep and Om — bear names that signify various states of consciousness. Sleep, a pioneering stoner rock band famed for their hour-long drone epic “Dopesmoker,” aimed not so much for the soporific as the hallucinogenically detached. Om, though still a dense and hypnotic creature to be sure, is a variation on that idea, the mystical implications of their moniker funneled into the dense yet sometimes transcendent psychedelic sounds that Cisneros and drummer Emil Amos call up. It’s not religious music per se, but evokes spirituality in its many forms — Tibetan chants, a five-hour concert in Jerusalem, album titles like Pilgrimage and God is Good. The intent is something very different than that of Sleep, but the end result — a heavy if somewhat intangible impact left on the listener — is one important common ground.
While never a “metal” band in the truest sense of the word, Om has progressively moved away from their heavier origins, particularly since the departure of original drummer Chris Hakius. Yet Advaitic Songs, the most recent checkpoint in their ongoing quest for sonic enlightenment, finds forms of heaviness and density through more ethnically diverse and stylistically unconventional components — violins, viola, flute, tabla, vocal chants. This pushes them much closer to the aesthetic of Amos’ other band, Grails, than the thick rumbling of Sleep, though the hypnotic qualities espoused by that band seem as potent as ever.
Using sparse elements to stir up a wide expanse of sound has long been Om’s modus operandi, and with Advaitic Songs, they don’t so much abandon that approach as embellish it a little. The added stringed instruments don’t crowd out their psychedelic drones, they merely color them a bit. However, one of the album’s five tracks, opener “Addis,” features the duo in a minimized role. Chanting female vocals, strings and tabla are the guiding forces of the piece, which features a repeating riff from Cisneros, but little of the duo’s cosmically vast psych drones. Not that it isn’t alluring in all its mystical atmosphere, of course. It’s not until the distorted grooves and sinister vocals of “State of Non-Return” that Advaitic Songs becomes more recognizably an Om album. Yet, that said, the duo’s attempts at branching out warrant merit: “Gethsemane” pairs cinematic doom with typically impenetrable and weird lyrics from Cisneros (“A sovereign dreadnaught breathes and approach the state serene/ Interiorizer of the mind from world labyrinth“); “Sinai” continues a similar path, brooding and spacious; and “Haqq al-Yaqin” incorporates acoustic instruments more prominently in the service of a gentler, classical form of transcendent folk trance.
All of the tracks on Advaitic Songs are of a piece, really — similar key, tempo, structure, et al. It’s best to think of it as a continuous journey through bizarre meditative and stoned channels than as a collection of separate songs. Om is about immersion above all, a quality that continues unabated here, just brought about through slight variations in technique. The experience has changed a bit, but the impact remains as deep.
Stream: Om – “State of Non-Return”