Intelligent and Spiritual, But Way Too Flat and Empty.
Om is an American Stoner Metal duo from San Francisco, and “Variations on a Theme” is their debut album, released in 2005. The two musicians, Al Cisneros and Chris Hakius, were the rhythm section of cult Stoner Metal band Sleep. Later on Hakius left the band, and was replaced by Emil Amos, drummer of the band Grails. But this earlier period of the band was for sure more primitive, repetitive, and tribal sounding, while the latter works tended to be more varied in terms of song structure, with more clearly diverse musical passages.
“Variations on a Theme” certainly is the album that, in a sense, better reflects this duo’s art. First of all, the only instruments that are audible in these 45 minutes are a heavily distorted bass guitar, drums, and vocals. With such a minimalistic set, you can’t expect much richness in the music: the songs are extremely long, extremely stretched out, and with as little variation as possible. For all three of these tracks, there is one, main riff that is played for each song, and the variations that are being applied to that are ever so slight, perhaps a faster or slower tempo, or a tiny variation in the melody. Even the lyrics are the same and the vocals sound the same every time the section in which they sing on reappears during the track, once again. Because of the very slim instrumentation, the sound and production can’t really do anything much, and the music as a result is incredibly monotone; between the beginning and the end of the album, there isn’t really any sonic difference.
Now, this formula was for some people successful, and Om actually turned out to be a very beloved band among the Stoner Metal community, for their unique and extreme approach to the genre. And it certainly is a unique idea, the one to reproduce the structure of old, Byzantine chants and reinterpret them for hypnotic purposes. And “Variations On a Theme” could have certainly worked, since the concept of such an album is very original. But these 45 minutes end up being extremely forced, boring, and unproductive. All three riffs that are being played are very generic sounding, reminiscent of the typical, or rather stereotypical sounds of the Doom Metal genre. There really is nothing to really like in this album except for the concept and idealization of it, but the actual execution is very scarce and disappointing, to say the least.
Om managed to keep the same formula with their following albums, and fortunately, with greater success. But this first experiment was a miss, however, a miss necessary for hitting it right in the future.