Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

Om - Variations on a Theme

Variations on a Theme

AOTM #57, February 2005ce
Released 2005 on Holy Mountain
  1. On the Mountain at Dawn (21.16)
  2. Kapila's Theme (11.56)
  3. Annapurna (11.52)

Note: Officially re-starting my second psychedelic period on January 1st this year, I chewed up two large portions of Mexican mushies and proceeded into the Underworld, at whose portals I did espy a large spectral Viking ship floating in deep space, manned by several translucent rock’n’roll musicians armed with the sonic equivalent of STAR WARS-style light sabres. By 5 a.m., I was convinced that rock’n’roll – though inappropriate for much of the straighter population of the world – was still the best way to enlightenment for those itinerant few whose lives depend on travel, change and inconstancy. It was, therefore, with great joy that I discovered the return of these two poet musicians – the Uber Weedians, if you will. Gentlemen, it’s been too long a hibernation… Welcome home!


Breaks the new month with southern sunrise refracting, slowly tracing arc-lights of Mithra cross Rinde’s frozen belly. Yup, after disappearing into the underworld at the end of the last millennium, the great Dionysus is re-awakened and risen from below Mt. Parnassus… It’s true, motherfuckers. Chris Hakius and Al Cisneros – two-thirds of San Jose’s legendary Sleep - are finally back from the dead after over half a decade. They’ze been reborn as the Sacred Twins and we all gots to start writing in that same elegant spewdo-religious psychobabble in deference to this fact. And if that sounds like I ain’t totally down with this album and its higher aims, then excuse me reinforcing my assertions by quoting my own review of Sleep’s DOPESMOKER, because the lyrics of Al Cisneros were truly “the kind of accessible pseudo-religious genius that started genuine religions.”

Yup, I am yet again worshipping at these guys’ pragmatic altar of eternal usefulness. Indeed, I love everything about this record, its sound, its persistent mid-tempo sludge trudge (what they themselves call: “a transportive series of differentiated verse with sets of solid groove”), its vocal mantras and its total devotion to taming time. Indeed, even the clichéd but perfectly righteous sleeve, with the It’s a Beautiful Day-style lone-eagle-in-the-sky and almost New Age lettering snags me by the cobblers. Both pertinent AND righteous simultaneously, most surely because this is one supremely meditational album. For, whereas Sleep’s guitarist Matt Pike attempted to banish the ghost of his old band with his highly rock High on Fire power trio project, Messrs. Cisneros and Hakius have instead further reduced their previous Sleep trip, honing it down to a guitarless yet amazingly complete Rickenbacker bass/vocals and drums sound that – like the best reggae - knits itself into both the ether and the air surrounding it and, taking the 52-minutes of Sleep’s ’95 ‘Jerusalem’ as its blueprint, presents a sound that is so bold and obvious you wonder why no sucker had copped this idea before. But, like all the greats, the usefulness of this level of invention is only self-evident when presented ultra-confidently to the listener by those originators themselves. And so the magnificently-named Om project kick starts itself as full of attitude as if Sleep had merely shed another guitarist (as they did with Justin Marler between their own debut and SLEEP’S HOLY MOUNTAIN) and taken a sabbatical in order to trim off further fat stored up during their cross-millennial hibernation.

Cisneros & Hakius

Long Dark Evenings at the Back of Your Mind

Moreover, the much later release of ‘95’s ‘Jerusalem’ in its massively excavated, extended and re-evaluated 2003 form as DOPESMOKER has by now put so much space between the SLEEP’S HOLY MOUNTAIN period and this debut by Om, that there is no longer any need to make even oblique references to their Sabbath origins, save perhaps for mentioning that their trudge was undoubtedly initially informed by the low low highs of MASTER OF REALITY’s ‘’Into the Void’ (in which Tony Iommi so subsumed his Gibson SG into Geezer’s bass frequencies that Cisneros has easily nailed the sound with one single distoto Rickenbacker). By ‘Jerusalem’ anyway, Cisneros had dumped whatsoever Ozzie-styled vocalisms that remained in favour of his now celebrated and convoluted High Priest of the Ganga ‘Proceeds the Weedian’ vocal delivery that bears no relationship to any other rock’n’roll vocal style. Cisneros’ earlier devotion to Holy Land and Middle East imagery (‘Sacred Israel, Holy Mt. Zion’, ‘Hasheeshian Lebanon’, ‘prayer-filled smoke Golgotha’, etc., etc), and Atlantean, Hindi and Biblical references were always far removed from the typical Heavy Metal lyricist. But they have here on this Om debut been pared down to just a couple of passing references (Lazarus, Vedic Sun) that seem to have been employed more for their ability to conjure up instantly ‘otherly’ associations, rather than for any specific meanings. Indeed, looking back to ‘Jerusalem’, the evidence is that Cisneros had the FX of the pot and its reggae associations in his mind rather than anything deeper. What other metaller would allude to the ‘Groundation soul’ in his lyrics, let alone intone about taking hits from ‘the green cutchie’?

Whatever, these strange lyrical allusions still steadfastly remain products of Cisneros’ desire for shamanic flight and enthrall the listener on this Om voyage. On ‘Annapurna’, Cisneros intones: “I climb toward the sun to breathe the indrawn universal” and “The flight to freedom gradient raise the called ascendant.” Just as 20th century liberal Anglicans adapted King James’ Bible in an attempt to make it more approachable to we Moderns, but accidentally rendered it secular and useless in the process, so Cisneros cunningly cloaks his words in such a stylised and seemingly arcane Second Language Translation Speak that his otherwisae fairly obvious poetic allusions are raised towards the Blakean.

On the massive opening track, the initiate watches as the ‘summit upholds the canopied skies of a new day’. ‘Kapila’s Theme’ summons up more ‘Jerusalem’ with lines such as “Sight to freedom rises descender” and the tortuously fabulous mouthful: “Prevails flight resplendent – sails the shrine effulgent windship”. Get down! Indeed, that last winner reminds me that much of the power of these words lies in the confidently concise nature of Al Cisneros’ outrageous glossary. Such lyrics as “accretes the ground nerve skein” and “approach the grid substrate the sunglows beam to freedom” are so commonplace in this man’s work, that you really gots to accept his own publicity hand-out, in which he declares that the power of the lyrics is not in their meaning but in their ability to ‘serve as symbolist vehicles to a state outside the field of time and space’. Indeed, delivered in such a chanted manner, instant psychedelic vision is conjured by such wild claims as:
“Striates into the sky on outwards spires reaching
Under orbic vermillion sun migration on the wings.”

The Flight to Freedom

It should be noted that this first Om album is very much that; a debut on which to hang big hopes of further massive offerings. In many ways, Cisneros and Hakius have sensibly aimed not too high, working again with Doom-meister Billy Anderson and pruning the gargantuan offerings of late Sleep into palatably ingestible sacraments for our repeated usage. Indeed, I’ve had the record on permanent repeat these past two weeks and listened to it integrate with the video blue walls of my bedroom as its vocal mantras have caught on the sharper objects upon my walls, enveloping them everso gradually like a persistent spider pursuing and finally catching an increasingly sleepy late November fly. That said, the great centrepiece of this Om debut is still a highly charged and high reaching piece of Zoner Rock. This, the aforementioned 21-minutes of “On the Mountain at Dawn”, with its ten verses and repeated mantras, could surely never in a million years have come from the inexperienced mind of first timers1. And if the gentlemen can achieve such spectacular results with simple bass, drums and vocals, we can only hope that the fruits of subsequent bong voyages are the kind of rampantly overachieving stunners that can equip our innermost Mung Worshipful selves right on into the next decade.

So give these gentlemen two rounds of applause – first for their new album, and second for their determination to accept that their metaphor was righteous enough in the first place to GET BACK ON IT!!!

  1. I remember reading how disappointed Tom Verlaine was when he was forced to reduce the original ‘Marquee Moon’ down from its intended 17 verses. Well bub, I reckon the time is right in these post-Cisnerosian times to unveil that sucker and have it putter right back into the graveyard. Replace the feyness of the Eno-produced demos with some of the gasoline sludge trudge that Om are spilling out right here, and Verlaine and Co. would be good for another decade. Though I Shirley ain’t holding my breath.