It's hard to break down what OM is not because it is so complex, but because it is so simple. Music journalists are absorbed by terminology and context. We see a band like OM featuring the bass player (and, in a sense, the heartbeat) of Sleep, Al Cisneros, and immediately want to suggest "stoner" connotations. We hear the chant like pieces featured in the duo's songs and want to call it "eastern" or "Byzantine." I personally like to refer to the band as being "pantheistic meditation-metal."
This is fine. We are writing through the lens of a very rational and precise culture and we want to have strong frames of reference when we communicate things to other people.
However, these terms are not rigid. You can whittle away at their definitions in a Socratic fashion all day to the point where you aren't focused on what the music does for you so much as you are focused on where music exists in the framework of how you try to understand the world. It becomes noise. A distraction like one of those endless forum or YouTube comment arguments about the difference between "doom" and "sludge" metal or something.
Talking with OM, I wasn't able to pry a precise definition of what its members do, at least not one that would fit into the typical lexicon of musicology. I received no crash course in Hindu philosophy or references to Orthodox mystics. Instead, I received answers that seemed to eschew cultural constructions of music and focus instead on music's holistic aspects. Somewhere in all that swirling, spiritual/sonic nebula, OM resides.
"It's devotional music in the sense that all life is devotional and music is a reflection of life," Cisneros says, addressing the spiritual aspects of the band. "So if you take music on its own and say that it is devotional music, it's only a partial explanation. It is all of our lives; it is a reflection of the heart."
"The heart is constant," Cisneros explains, "It's unceasing, it's continual. It's not that music is just one thing. One song, one show. No, it's constant. It's the unceasing prayer, it's the unceasing song, it's the song that's in the universe. The one verse."
Maybe this is a cop-out, a kind of calculated esotericism to distract critics who will call out some of the more apparent influences of the band. But I think OM is a band that doesn't care about its context in musical terminology, either in an apathetic stoner sense or an enlightened guru sense. Maybe a little of both. Drummer Emil Amos claims that the process of creating the band's most recent album, Advaitic Songs, a record that starts off with a Sanskrit mantra praising Krishna, proceeds into a fuzzy, riff-heavy track called "State of Non-Return," and then expands out into some ambient and very "near-eastern" sounding songs was actually pretty organic and not concerned too much with any kind of genre authenticity.
"A lot of times it's just the nature of recording," Amos says. "It's serendipitous and often a fluke. It comes back and you kind of know you are going in the right direction, but it's not that you really set out to make a specifically 'Persian' scale or anything. You just like these notes in this order. I think it's tough for a journalist sometimes because they kind of assume that you're doing a lot of it on purpose, but a lot of it just happens because you are looking for this emotional zone that you perceiving. It was about as unacademic as you can imagine. I really don't think we were trying to reference anything." Even if they were making overt references, Amos and Cisneros feel like they have no desire to sit down and explain themselves in an annotated fashion for the listener, instead preferring to leave the interpretation of the art to those who press play.
"I think it reduces it and that experience for the audience goes away," Cisneros says about even attempting to explain the bands seemingly cryptic lyrics. "That is for them. That is their discovery of the music. If you don't feel something on the record, don't listen to it. It's really simple. It's very simple."
Nothing about this actually seems radical or mysterious, but in a climate where we are used to being given exhaustive explanations by bands or enthusiasts either through music journalism, commentary tracks, documentaries, and popular non-fiction, telling people to form their own opinions and come to their own conclusions about music feels like a profound statement. It's easy to make accusations of obscurantism, similar to the kind of reaction a band like Cult Ritual or anyone else who rode the wave of "Mysterious Guy Hardcore" a few years ago received. But OM aren't people wearing ski masks and pretending to not have email addresses. The fact that I was able to talk with them is a testament to that. It's just that their explanations for what they do and why they do it are so simple in comparison to the elaborate band narratives you usually read about. I can't imagine this band would make a big deal out of writing an album in a cabin while sick with mono.
To get on the spiritual level of an OM record, maybe every corny musician talking about their passions and inspirations at length is maya, the Sanskrit word for the kinds of illusions that distract us from the universal truth. OM might be a band that is more detached from this, comfortable with the reality that it is what it is and that fans can accept it or go somewhere else. It's like the "we don't care what you think of us" attitude expressed by so many rebellious rock musicians, if only more placid.
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If OM doesn't care about something, it's because it doesn't matter.
OM is scheduled to perform Friday, February 15, at Crescent Ballroom.