Dark side of the room
Dark side of the room
Jason Roeder

Om Drone Metal Riffs on Religion

The first time he heard Black Sabbath through a pair of speakers, Al Cisneros was in a record store with his father in 1979. He admits to having one simple reaction, one that mimicked the desired effect the band had on teenage boys all over the world: "Oh, my God. This is actually scary. Fucking hell."

The ominous three-note riff creeping from Tony Iommi's [1] guitar on "Black Sabbath," the opening track of the band's 1970 eponymous debut is still burned on his brain. In recounting the event, Cisneros frequently laughs nervously—a chuckle that indicates that he's still impressed and intimidated by his beloved band.

"When we started Sleep," the otherwise stoic bassist and vocalist says, referencing his essential doom-metal outfit from the '90s, "I just couldn't understand the entire status quo of music at all. It's actually very similar today. I've always considered those first four [Sabbath] albums to be essentially like a university. When you know that they're right, you listen, so I absorbed it as much as I could."

With his current work in the San Francisco-based Om, Cisneros' long-fuse-burning, rhythm-focused drone/psych/experimental metal takes a hearty gulp from the cup of Sabbath's influence. But unlike their metal heroes, Cisneros and his partners generate music that earnestly pays tribute to several religions. Faith-fixated tunes delivered through rougher forms of rock are nothing new—see Christian punk bands Calibretto 13 and the Crucified, the Hare Krishna-worshiping hardcore unit 108, and Christian metal groups Underoath and King's X—but this band take a different tack. From a distance, Om promote religious concepts into their songs from the perspective of scholars rather than believers, similar to how death-metallers Nile inspect ancient Egyptian lore and culture. The truth is foggier than that, but that sense of disassociation has allowed Cisneros' reputation to retain a coat of credibility within the secular metal community that openly devotional bands aren't likely to receive.

Soon after Sleep's demise in 1998, Cisneros established Om with drummer Chris Hakius, whom he first met in eighth grade. "[Om] was initially just designed as a way of me being able to get songs out of my heart," he says. "The common way of [doing] that is you see a singer/songwriter on an acoustic guitar and a microphone, but it doesn't matter. It could be an electric bass and a lot of amplifiers. The important thing is the song."

Grails' Emil Amos replaced Hakius in 2008, debuting with 2009's God Is Good, and multi-instrumentalist Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe is now officially a member of the group, too. While bass and drums have been and will likely always be Om's foundation, violin, sitar, tambura, flute, tabla and other instruments have grown to flesh out their soothing, hypnotic material.

Nowhere is Om's fascination with theological concepts clearer than in the song titles found on last July's Advaitic Songs, their fifth record. "State of Non-Return" stems from finding enlightenment in Buddhism, "Gethsemane" references the garden on the outskirts of Jerusalem and "Haqq al-Yaqin" translates from Arabic as "the reality of certainty," a key tenet in Islamic philosophy. Even the album's name is a reference to a branch of Hindu thought called the Advaita Vedanta. "I consider [Om's work] devotional music in a sense that it's not separate from life in one constant devotional movement," Cisneros says. Though the roots of his reputation are in doom metal, he has been adamant about Om's lack of link to that idea. "For us, these songs are about attaining freedom," he said in a 2008 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. "It has nothing to do with doom."

If, as an entity, Om's religious allegiances had to be classified, the group sound pantheistic more than anything. In a 2008 conversation with U.K. music site ninehertz, Cisneros said that he never feels as though he writes a riff, but is rather "[calling] it into the open." In revisiting that quote now, he compares it to "sonic archeology."

"The song, the beauty, whatever it is you're trying to render—it's of the universe. It's not yours, it's of God, and so the only thing you do is your job. And then you stop and it's reflected. All knowledge is there in the universe already. It's not created. I feel the same with art," he says. "We're discussing points from conversations from 2007, 2008, but it's important, too, that it's a journey, and the knowledge and perspective [evolve], and revisions are made in viewpoints, and understanding is deepened, hopefully. This is what matters to me in my life."


[1] Tony Iommi's name was misspelled in the original. Corrected Feb. 11, 2013.


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