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Chris Poland’s unique playing style is often credited to a hand injury sustained during a school-yard prank. After having his books knocked to the floor, Poland gave chase to the opportunistic offender. The pursuit ended when a door slammed on Poland’s hand, causing him to lose the tendon in his pointer finger as well as all feeling in his pinky.
“A lot of people say the reason I play in the style I do is because of my hand injury because I can’t bend my pointer finger,” the guitarist, currently of the progressive-jazz-metal fusion band Ohm:, notes. “I told somebody I wanted to get my finger fixed because I’ll play better if I can bend my finger!”
The seeds of the band were planted when Poland decided to move to California in 1977. Meeting up with bassist Robertino Pagliari, he co-founded the New Yorkers, a jazz fusion band that, despite receiving comparisons to such notable sonic risk takers as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, never recorded. Poland then joined thrash-metal icons Megadeth, recording on their 1985 debut album, Killing Is My Business . . . and Business Is Good!, and the 1986 follow-up, Peace Sells . . . But Who’s Buying?
After he was contentiously dismissed from Megadeth in 1987, the question “who’s buying?” never hindered his musical explorations. Poland remembers turning to Pagliari (who also suffered a hand injury in his past) and asking, “Why don’t we just start a band and play the kind of music we like to play, and who cares if we make any money doing it?” From that conversation, Ohm: were formed.
With a renewed purpose, Poland and Pagliari began writing music together in an unrestrained fashion similar to the New Yorkers’. With three studio albums now behind them, Ohm:’s sound can best be described as an amalgamation of jazz, metal and progressive rock influences defined by intricate instrumental arrangements and seamless time-signature changes. Their latest release, 2008’s Circus of Sound, best exemplifies this diverse approach. Headbangers will appreciate such songs as “The Black Hand,” while others, such as “Leap of Faith,” are pure melodic tour de forces.
Poland’s tones are exceptional throughout, while his shredding solos distinguish him from other acclaimed guitarists who made names for themselves in the ’80s and are now hopelessly encapsulated by the time period. Pagliari masterfully slides his six-string, fretless bass up and down, in search of playing every possible note with rapidity, while occasionally accentuating the sound with his wah pedal at appropriate moments. Kofi Baker, son of Cream drummer Ginger Baker, completes the three-piece with a drumming style attentive to the complex transitions from progressive to jazz.
“In this band, everybody is totally free to do whatever they want,” says Poland. Key to that freedom is the band’s lack of a lead singer—all songs are instrumentals. “It’s really easy to be trite and have your lyrics be worthless. For me, it’s a lot easier and a lot more fun just to write and play instrumental music because that’s what I fell in love with as a kid,” Poland says. “I grew up listening to Cream and Hendrix, but once I heard Jeff Beck’s instrumental records and bands like Weather Report and Return to Forever, I knew that’s where my heart lay.”
Ohm: may not have a “front man,” but the shows don’t suffer as a result. “Even though the record sounds really good, there’s a lot more energy live,” Poland says. Given the nature of the act, improvisations are obligatory. “That’s what we do. We don’t really play anything the same way twice. We follow the structure of the song, but the soloing and some of the melody sections might change up a little. When we pull it off, it freaks people out.
“We’re going to be playing three new songs at Tone Merchants,” Poland says of their show Saturday. Asked about Ohm:’s new album, Poland responds, “It’s kind of hard to describe.”
Given the band’s unpredictable history, “hard to describe” is not exactly surprising.
OHM: at Tone Merchants, 1521 W. Collins Ave., Orange, (714) 288-9583; www.tonemerchants.com. Sat., 8 p.m. $20; reservations recommended. All ages.