The first time I really listened to Om was at the Three Floyds brewpub in Munster, Indiana. A few friends and I had gone tubing on the Tippecanoe River, and we decided to stop on the way back to Chicago for food and drink. I didn’t know that the music playing over the speakers was Om – and yet, somehow, I did. I had listened to Sleep’s Dopesmoker once or twice in college, and had seen High on Fire in concert a number of times. I knew there was another splinter group, but I had never really investigated them beyond their name.
As we ate and drank, droning, monotonous compositions unfurled for what seemed like hours. They formed a strange symbiosis with the skateboarding videos that were being projected onto the walls.
“I think this is Om… Yeah this has be Om,” I said to the table, offering my non-metalhead companions a strong candidate for Irrelevant Comment of the Year. When it was over and we left, I didn’t know what to think about what I had heard. The music had an appealingly hermetic patience and austerity to it, as well as a sense of The East that was alluring. However, I also smelled a hint of insider baseball – lazy repetitions sold to the lowered standards of a thoroughly stoned audience. Did the songs really need to rumble on for that long?
Several years later I decided to check out Om in earnest. I got Pilgrimage, which seemed to be well-liked among fans and critics. I yawned uneasily through the gentle parts, wondering if I was missing something, but then —- WHAM! THE BASS! OH GOD THE BASS! UUUHHHHHHHNNNNNNNN
When “Unitive Knowledge of the Godhead” came on, my socks were knocked off. This was what I remembered, the thing that kept Om on the back burner of my mind through all the intervening years. Further listening revealed that the real gem however – the real High Water Mark, the Crowning Pinnacle, the Superlative Meditation – is not “Unitive,” but “Bhima’s Theme,” an eleven-and-a-half minute electric liturgy of immaculate, robust grooves that stretches behemoth-like across the sands, exuding dynamic waves of humility, reverence and grace from every section of its churning breadth.
Al Cisneros’ bass rumbles like some impossibly deep, ominous war horn, sounding across the desert and gaining strength as it echoes within the high city walls. Chris Hakius, acolyte of the Holy Ride Bell, keeps time while also offering fluttering snare accents and beat syncopations on the sly. He speeds and slows with Cisneros, according to the needs of the ceremony. The voice of the officiant – also Cisneros’ – is sweet golden honey, soothing and warm in its tracing of the ineffable.
The lyrics of “Bhima’s Theme” occupy an ambiguous place. They can be read as deep religious poetry, or meaningless nonsense, depending on your perspective.
Descent onto the gold dawn psalm
Falls Brahmicspine away
The truant mind reclaimed
Huh? Well, what’s important here is the delivery. Cisneros displays a brilliant sense of pitch and restraint with his supplicant’s chants. They are languid and comforting, ceremonial, and yet sleepy and imperfect. It’s hard to describe here just how supremely melodic and memorable the stanzas are. They vibrate some deep part of the throat that seems to shake loose positive feelings from the brain stem. I mumble-hummed inverted organ sensories and consolidated chariots all summer long, jumbling the phrases badly, but enjoying myself greatly the whole time. When I decided it was time to learn the lyrics and delivery properly – it was much harder than I thought.
The magic of “Bhima’s Theme” is that it’s so superbly catchy, yet so possesses such a powerful sense of Heavy Metal escapism. The riffs are few, but they are muscular and hypnotic. They intertwine with Cisneros’ voice and Hakius’ drumming in a deeply transportive way – one that washes away earthly troubles. One can take simple comfort in the presence of the higher powers that precede, outlast and stand guard over us, dynamos entwined in cosmic cycles from the very beginning, proceeding until the end of time.
Wait! Did I just write that? Well yeah, because the great and novel thing about “Bhima’s Theme,” and Om’s music in general, is that it presents religion – a concept that for many cynics and a great number of metalheads is inseparably intertwined with blood and corruption and conformity – in a light that is so curious, innocent and free of dogmatic judgment that the sonics and imagery are allowed to soar freely in realms of wonder. “Rise, consolidate on winds / the chariot,” Cisneros coos, launching us in lyrical updraft, up out of the earthy rumble and clangor of Om’s human laboring, and into bright and rapturous skies of transcendence.