OM: Conference of the Birds

MATT PIKE GOT HIGH ON FIRE. SLEEP’S OTHER TWO WENT OM

When Sleep shed the literal Sabbath-isms of Holy Mountain and truly came into Being on Dopesmoker (nee Jerusalem), they revealed more than a so-deep-it’s-molten devotion to the transcendental power of repetition – they revealed a canny knack for bending time itself. On paper, not much happens in Sleep’s then-final one-track statement: minor variations on a riff, stacks of same-chord bludgeon, scattered solos, spread over an hour and a bit and all at a seemingly sloth-like tempo. Yet somehow, that hour never ever drags. I don’t know why. Sloth is a misnomer because that shit’s a real eye opener, pointing out some sort of Way whether you want it or not, warping your perception as it does so. Things ain’t as slow as you think you think.

On paper, not much happens in Sleep’s then-final one-track statement: minor variations on a riff, stacks of same-chord bludgeon, scattered solos, spread over an hour and a bit and all at a seemingly sloth-like tempo. Yet somehow, that hour never ever drags. I don’t know why. Sloth is a misnomer because that shit’s a real eye opener, pointing out some sort of Way whether you want it or not, warping your perception as it does so. Things ain’t as slow as you think you think.

Sleep’s rhythm keepers, bassist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius, create exactly the same time-distortion thing with Om. When the trio dissolved, Sleep’s evolutionary end point was Om’s beginning, a beginning which freed them to go for the cosmic jugular with long, meditative excursions laced with heavy reps. Dopesmoker is Om’s template, but with one massive difference:

No Guitars.

Yep, the band that made one of THE most definitive, uncompromising Heavy Rock statements of all time birthed a duo who don’t even put guitars on their records. Question is, does it matter? Nope. This band’s on a trajectory all of its own and that means it demands to be judged on different terms. There’s still a ton of weight in Om’s records, but the difference is more in the way we listen – the lack of axe, the arch metal instrument, compels us to drop any preconceptions about what Om/ex-Sleep should sound like… stoner/drone/doom-lite, none of it makes sense. Om aren’t metal and they’re barely even rock, certainly not on the surface, but with Hakius’s tumbling rhythms and Cisneros’s propulsive distorto bass thickness, they definitely flow. Om’s musical currency is m-Omentum, pure and simple.

OM album cover Conference of the Birds

Atop that glutinous drum ‘n bass brew, the cleaned-up vocals give Om their third definingelement. Now even more of a monotone than it was on Dopesmoker, Al’s voice just sort of hangs there, a soft human drone levelling out any musical peaks and dips underneath. Crucially, this emotional void – in delivery, not literal content – is precisely what makes Om Om. That detachment accentuates the music’s repetition, brings a mantra-like calm to the tracks and threads a Constant through every track, and whether it’s achieved through design, vocal limitation or both, his style works as an effect and breathes a mesmeric calm to the records.

With such an unwavering sense of self and purpose, it’s no surprise that Conference of the Birds offers no real variation on Variations on a Theme, the Om debut. It has two tracks, both around the 16–18-minute mark, but if there’s one argument for picking up a record that’s pretty much the debut continued, it’s in this: At Giza.

Lean, clean and taut, and maybe even a tad delicate for the hardheaded Sleep/Om devotee, side 1’s At Giza marks an evolution of the Om thumbprint.

Floydian in its Set the Controls galactic ambience, dramatic in its pace and tension, At Giza is quiet and spacious, maybe even nimble … unlike the ultra evenflow of other Om tracks, this track actually builds to something. After slowing to a stalker’s near-silence halfway through, soft drums – the warmest, closest drums you ever heard – signal a colossal surge and climax and sure enough, we get one of those Moments. Flip the record over and Flight of the Eagle is Sleep-heavy by comparison, a dense-from-the-off work of low-end bass action that trundles Om-ward with glue on its wheels, true to the debut: the hypnotic pull is complete. Put it on heavy rotation and let it sink … in. Deep.

Released 2006 on Holy Mountain
Tracklist:
At Giza (15:55)
Flight of the Eagle (17:27)

This review was first posted on Julian Cope’s Head Heritage site back in 2010, and I’ve revised it very slightly so it makes sense in a post-Om/reactivated-Sleep world. For a Cope-ian reading of Om’s debut album, gorge on his Album of the Month review of Variations on a Theme.

SLEEP: Dopesmoker

THE RETURN OF SLEEP

Southern Lord’s physical release of The Clarity marks the start of some proper Sleep activity this year, so what better prep for rock’s heaviest slumber than a nod or ten to the unstoppable Dopesmoker? This review was first written for Julian Cope’s Head Heritage Unsung back in 2004 so the time references are a bit out now, but that don’t matter … it still stands true, the bong remains the same.

*****

Now spreading its hefty gut over 3 sides of vinyl is the fully restored, who-ate-all-the-pies mix of Dopesmoker, the last album by cult doom/stoner trio Sleep.

Although the tale of its original recording and subsequent non-release has long since passed into underground lore, it deserves a hazy recap.

As the follow-up to Sleep’s Holy Mountain from 1993, this was supposed to be the band’s third full-length release. After spending a couple of years on the record, Sleep eventually dished up the mouldy fruits of their hard-smoked labours to London Records: a single track clocking in at over an hour. That, in itself, might not have been a problem (for the label) had their been some light and shade, some variety or even, dare we say it, a recognisable concept… but no. This is Sleep – the really deep, molten-eyelids stuff that’s just a stoner’s throw from Coma Tose Island. And that means one riff (pretty much) equals one song equals one hour, the simplest equation in the history of rock. Didn’t add up for the label, though. They refused to release it, Sleep refused to change it and a deadlock ensued; the threesome split and the album remained on the shelf, cementing Sleep’s legendary status. Rise Above did manage to put out a shortened version called Jerusalem but, finally, in 2003, Tee Pee Records did the honours. Here’s what the sleeve notes say:

Dopesmoker is an alternate version of Jersualem that we felt our fans might enjoy. This early version, as yet unheard, contains a more dynamic recording and a heavier mix. So get high, crank it up and listen with open ears and mind…”

Sleep's Dopesmoker

Dopesmoker uncut

So… let’s get started, eh?

Well, nearly. Dopesmoker almost doesn’t start at all. Beginning with a slow, arthritic guitar line that just about musters the energy to lumber out of bed, it sounds a wee bit lost, trying to work out where it should go and which path to follow. Once the rolling percussion kicks in, however, a massive revelation comes to pass: “Fuck it. I AM the path.” And from thereon, there are no questions – you go with it, or you don’t: The Riff has been set free, swaggering ahead with all the ludicrous brilliance of a hundred-mile tractor ride, and that is what sucks you into the vinyl… the compelling absurdity of an hour-long opus that warps the fabric of time itself. Never mind Superman flying the opposite way around the planet – too many rotations of this platter and the world would stop for good. Aside from the occasional solo, lyrical interlude or brief excursion into more subtle terrain, Dopesmoker just keeps going… and going …and going. Not in an interminable, ultra doom slo-mo sense because Chris Hakius’ busy drum fills give it urgency, or at least the illusion of urgency. Nope, this obstinate mass of Sabbath-inspired heaviosity is an exercise in endurance, momentum and constancy. Even when the needle nears the very end of its marathon run, there is no cornball climax or pyrotechnic finale, just a soft fadeout which suggests the Sleep guys could have carried on for another couple of earthly rotations. In fact, they probably did. I like to think so.

But there’s more to this album than one gargantuan ode to weed. Closing the record on side four is Sonic Titan, a live track with a groove so loose it almost shits itself, guitar strings flapping like flares in a force 10. Doom garage, anyone? At 9 minutes, it’s a mere slip of a toon.

Stubborn? Stupendous? Absolutely, but the sublimely ridiculous never went down this well. If thick guitars, repetition and maximum mileage are your bag, succumb to the temptation of Sleep. Your body needs it.

PALMS – Palms

Released on Ipecac, 2013

If you’ve missed the post-metallic majesty of Isis since they called it quits three years ago, get your hands on Palms – and prepare to fly.

Palms is what happens when Jeff Caxide, Aaron Harris and Bryant Clifford Meyer finally emerge from their post-Isis existential fug to decide that yes, they WILL make a record and it will be with each other

but it won’t be instrumental. They want a singer. Question is, after thirteen years with Aaron Turner on vocal command in the old band, who’s gonna fit their bill?

Step forward Deftones frontman Chino Moreno. After striking up a hiking friendship (yes, really) with drummer Aaron Harris, it’s clear he’s keen and wants in on this new post-Isis project.

ISIS + DEFTONES: big-name rock merger or what?

Sure is. But whereas some all-star join-ups sound assembled and bolted together instead of organically grown – Audioslave’s debut being a case in point – this one is seamless and effortless and fully formed from the off. A strong Isis current flows throughout but it’s not the raw, guttural Isis of Celestial, nor does it dominate. No, this record takes the clean vocals and spacious musicality of Wavering Radiant (Ghost Key, Hand of the Host) as a starting point and then bursts skyward. This is a record that takes you places.

Musically that’s no surprise, given the pedigree of the players and the nature of their previous band(s), but in the same way that Om took their own legacy – Dopesmoker’s dense mantra – into more airy terrain, Palms do a similar evolution job with the layers, surges and flows that defined their Ipecac forefathers. Future Warrior’s hypnotic intensity and Mission Sunset’s slow build to bruising/beautiful low-end payoff – one of THE peaks of this expansive set – are most Isis-like, but there’s other stuff going on too. Electronic hues usher in a cool, hushed ambience, none more so than on the gently euphoric dream-state closer Antarctic Handshake. You get a sense of elevation, movement and open spaces, if that means anything. Twilights and sunsets and pre-storm stillness. That’s Palms.

Crucial to this new ID for the ex-Isis three is, surely, Chino Moreno. Deftones revel in both sensitivity and rage, and Moreno’s vocals here traverse that same spectrum. Sometimes hushed, sometimes screamed but never hostile, his soulful yearn sounds caught in the throes of ascension – just not departed yet.

And somehow, that’s exactly where the album belongs. Music to be swept with, and lifted by.

‘Ascending into heaven

while staring into hell.

We’re staring into heaven

descending into hell.’

Lyrics from Shortwave Radio. Says it all.