The introduction of Grails/Holy Sons drummer Emil Amos as the new half of San Francisco duo Om yields a slow head nod of Biblical proportions with the group's latest, four-song epic God Is Good.
Sure, it seems a bit sacrilegious for the group to keep using the same name after drummer Chris Haikus parted ways in February 2008. Along with bass player Al Cisneros, the dynamic duo made stoner rock mystical and mean again in the '90s as the bass and drummer behind the band Sleep. The pangs of their '98 rhythm and sludge masterpiece Dopesmoker have reverberated for a solid decade since its hour-long title track first wafted into the air, like clouds of marijuana smoke billowing from basement parties in college towns across the country.
Sleep vocalist/guitar player Matt Pike left the band in '99 to form High on Fire. In his absence, Cisneros and Haikus formed Om and began releasing dense, avant-garde metal opuses — such as '05's Variations on a Theme and '07's Pilgrimage — that spread out into the farthest reaches of stoner-rock wizardry.
But from the onset of God Is Good's opening number "Thebes," the album moves beyond the guttural, post-Sabbath riff-fest that put these players on the map. God Is Good is a full-bodied journey into the ether that carries none of the psychic baggage of a so-called metal album. Instead, it's rich with mood, subtlety and an inviting sense of darkness.
As the album opens, a solid 35 seconds of silence creeps by before the slice of a tambura slithers out of the nothingness. The sound is so smooth and razor-sharp that its presence initally takes shape like a hallucination, a phantom sound or maybe even the natural hum of static in the headphones. But soon its Middle Eastern inflections and spiritual reverence are revealed in full. A sobering and penitent drone follows.
It's clear that Amos drives much of the writing, bringing to each of these four songs rich percussive textures that may not crash like the hammer of Haikus' signature strikes, but are filled with greater mystical power. God Is Good sounds more like a Holy Sons' record as its apocalyptic intimacy aims more for the head than the body. Perhaps that's why the oblique themes of spirituality in the lyrics and the sparkling tambura sliding through "Thebes" and "Cremation Ghat I" are so pronounced. Similarly, the flute solo in "Meditation is the Practice of Death" carries Om to a new plane of stoned enlightenment.
What hasn't changed is Cisneros' penchant for penning Old Testament-style drama in his verbiage. Like a booming voice from the sky, his opening lines ring out, "Descends supine grace of the luminant/Attunes to access light of celestial form/Open the radiant sea — electric." Later in "Mediation Is the Practice of Death," he sings "O John the Baptist — triumphant beam release. ... Travel on now Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego."
On past records his lyrical spew has come across as something of a heavy metal cliché. But here his words take on a new sense of reverence — still a bit corny, but not out of place. As God Is Good unfolds, it feels like fire and brimstone are falling from the sky, as if Cisneros' incantations have summoned the wrath of an angry god.
"Cremation Ghant I" finds the album taking yet another turn in an unexpected direction. As the patterns of the minimal bass and drums layer and coalesce, the two stumble onto a hidden dimension of rhythm. Their locked, staccato groove quickly becomes the album's most compelling moment. Amid the album's swirling, sacred torment, the rhythms in "Cremation Ghat I" are so pleasing that the song demands repeat listens. If anything, its short three minutes and 11 seconds are a frustrating tease. As soon as you're prepared for the long-form dose of droning patterns — a form that so many of Om's songs employ — it is all taken away, leaving the ears fixated and obsessed with yearning.
The album derives much of its strength from that ebb and flow of atmospheric devices, crammed into short, rhythmic vignettes. It makes the release a pop album of sorts; a cinematic romp filled with all sorts of exotic sights and sounds. When the ominous bass and tambura slide back in for the closing number "Cremation Ghat II," it's as though the credits are rolling in this spiritual journey inward.
It oozes with nonsecular unease. The shift away from the scorching riffage of Om's past has left many of the metal-minded masses lamenting the group's more aggressive, pre-Amos side. But God Is Good is heavy and dark by its own standards, and feels like the album Om has strived to create from day one. Nonbelievers be damned.