Village Underground, London
25th November 2013
Louder Than War’s Sean McGeady checks out San Fran stoner metallists Om at Village Underground in London. All photos by Ned Jackson.
Sampled Tibetan chants coast upon opulent synthesised drones beneath divine blue light. Low frequencies infuse the space. Quasi-religious lyrics sit atop repeated rhythms. Cymbals shimmer. Sinai closes. A crowd cheers.
Al Cisneros is a man of few words. Hunched over his bass, cradling its neck, he cuts an ursine figure, bolstered tonight by a thick black beard. Al formed Om in 2003 along with drummer Chris Hakius; both had been members of stoner doom pioneers Sleep. Chris made three albums with the band before leaving to be replaced by Emil Amos of Grails. Since then Om have enlisted the vocal and instrumental talents of Rob Lowe and produced two albums of increasingly divergent textures, tones and themes.
The high ceilings and brickwork arches of London’s Village Underground make for a suitable setting for a band steeped in gnosticism. Sound spirals from the amps and around the room’s cavernous, temple-like interior during second song Meditation Is The Practice of Death.
The band’s most uptempo track, Cremation Ghat I, is a short instrumental that squirms and shakes with a propulsive dub rhythm. It blends seamlessly into Cremation Ghat II, a much slower piece which drifts and drones in direct contrast to its funky predecessor.
It’s a testament to Om’s ever-increasing scope that their live shows can elicit such varied physical responses from an audience. Often, it’s appropriate to stand still, eyes closed, offering oneself unconditionally to the meditative experience; during other songs, such as Cremation Ghat I, the crowd shimmies and skanks; throughout heavier passages like next song State of Non-Return – a lurching psalm with mournful cello passages recreated tonight through Rob’s synthesiser -the band’s doom metal roots are most evident, as the audience headbang and throw fists to the air.
Rhythmically conducting the crowd’s movements is drummer Emil, who’s seemingly able to coax more sounds from a single cymbal, a single skin, than most drummers can an entire kit. Flailing across his crash cymbals with accuracy and panache, his wildly expressive style makes him a joy to watch, especially during a performance which typically sees little onstage movement.
Between songs – from the still crowd – comes a thick hispanic accent. “Where is the overdrive?” a guy shouts, calling for the distorted bass tones that characterised the band’s early works, tones that have since been largely abandoned, but retain enough magnitude to terrify Charles Richter. “ey, Al! Where is the overdrive?!”
Heads turn to find the curious hispanic heckler. There’s a brief pause, just enough to crystallise perfect comedic timing, before, with a drawling Californian diction, Al responds, “where is the weed?”
It’s everywhere, as it turns out. To my left, in an act of stoner-genuflection, a man crouches periodically and a light flickers in the darkness at knee-level. He lights a joint – just enough to take a single drag – and docks it out. He’s done this every few minutes. He’s very high.
Om’s instrumentation is sparse enough to serve as a showcase for each member’s talents. Al’s bass is at the forefront of the sound. When his tone isn’t clean and perfectly rounded his five-string Rickenbacker releases ropes of monolithic fuzz. Om’s repetitive arrangements allow Emil to decorate them with extended fills. He reaches for areas of the drumkit most neglect. But perhaps the most outstanding sounds come from the throat of Rob Lowe. He conjures sounds I’m convinced no other could. His neo-tantric high-frequency howling, manipulated via synthesised effects, is a welcome counterpoint to the trudging bass and pealing drums.
An extended and slowed Gebel Barkal sees Al’s clean bass and contemplative mantras carry the crowd toward the thunderous finale of Bhima’s Theme. The closer builds in intensity before it’s stripped away to leave Rob providing vocal flourishes as Emil maintains a sparse pulse.
A final snare hit rings out to a silent crowd. Om leave the stage.
“Thank you, London.”
Al Cisneros is a man of few words. But they’re all the right words.
Om can be found on Facebook.