“Most High”: How—and why—Om builds its minimalist, contemplative metal
Text by Jay Babcock
Photos by Lars Knudson
Art direction by W.T. Nelson
Originally published in Arthur No. 22 (May 02006)
Sleep were a tightly focused, intensely dedicated super-heavy riff band from the San Francisco Bay Area who gained a small but devoted following during their time. Even if, like me, you never listened to a note of their music or saw them perform, you probably heard about these guys somewhere: they were the monastic goners who delivered an hour-long narrative song (about caravans of marijuanauts and weedians crossing riff-filled desert lands on an epic drug run) to their record label as their big-label debut (and third overall album)—and then disappeared in the proverbial cloud of smoke… The song/album “Jerusalem” was never released by London/Polygram, the band split up, years passed. Eventually, in 1999, “Jerusalem” was released under still-mysterious circumstances (a better version, entitled “Dopesmoker,” is now available) and the Whispers With Smiles From Those Who Know were proven right: this was a breakthrough masterpiece—deceptively repetitive minimalist heavy metal of such single-minded all-vision that every ridiculous element of the project was rendered sublime by minute three.
When ex-Sleep guitarist Matt Pike’s new band High On Fire debuted in late ’99, it was easy to think this would be the closest you’d ever get to witnessing the now-legendary Sleep: the music heavy yet progressive, the songs endless, the lyrics suitably Old Testament. It was not a repeat of Sleep—there was more emphasis on high velocity—but it was innovative and staggering in its own right.
A closer (which is not to say superior) continuation of “Jerusalem”-era Sleep surfaced in 2004, with the release of Om’s debut album, “Variations on a Theme.” Om was ex-Sleep bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros and ex-Sleep drummer Chris Hakius: a power duo without need of a guitar. “Variations”’ three songs clocked in at 21:16, 11:56 and 11:52. Cisneros’ lyrics—sung (“bravely,” as one friend put it) in an affectless drone-chant—echoed “Jerusalem” but had lost their weed-centricity and become even more hallucinatory; “Approach the grid substrate the sunglows beam to freedom/Winds grieve the codex shine and walks toward the grey” is a typical couplet. A new kind of purity—thinner but deeper, maybe?—had been achieved.
Om’s second album, “Conference of Birds,” is released this month. It has two songs, each over 15 minutes in length. The first, “At Giza,” takes Cisneros and Hakius’ music to an even sparer place of un-distorted bass, drums and vocals. As with these guys’ previous work in Sleep and Om, “Giza” points out new horizons even as the duo hone their own gaze ever sharper.
I spoke with Al Cisneros by telephone from his Bay Area home in late March. Here’s some of our conversation.Continue reading