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Friday, December 17, 2010

Om, Lichens, Barn Owl Share Trancey Stories in the Dark of the Independent

Posted By on Fri, Dec 17, 2010 at 8:24 AM

  • Om

Barn Owl
December 16, 2010
@ The Independent

Better than:
Any other situation involving lichens, barn owls, and sacred syllables.

It was dark at the Independent last night. The performers sent forth their communal hypnoses in low light, the audience swayed along in relative blackness, and when the overheads came on between sets everyone scattered just perceptibly, like dazed, sharply dressed cockroaches.

I'm not pointing this out just to excuse the lamentable quality of my photos; the dark suited each act in its own way. Headliners Om -- once just the rhythm section of San Jose stoner-metal pioneers Sleep, these days a duo with a different drummer, last night joined by otherworldly sound-machine Robert A.A. Lowe, and, briefly, a lady flautist -- played a litany of rumbling menace under a shifting stream of hot pastels, a stick of incense burning slowly down on singer Al Cisneros's mic stand.

As the name suggests, Om's music is an incantatory business, a combination of steely bass monotone and explosive rhythms, ritualistic verses and lockgroove headbanger choruses. There's typically no guitar, although Lowe pitched in on one when he wasn't bedeveling a tambourine or vocalizing in a soaring, snake-charming howl (in particular on "Cremation Ghat I," from last year's God Is Good, which drew a huge and unexpected cheer of recognition from the crowd). Some of the more meditative moments draw dangerously close to silence: it's partly a mood thing, partly the limitations of the instrumentation. After the last song before the encore, it took the audience a collective moment to realize the band had left the stage already.

Cisneros sets the tone with snaking bass lines rife with tension and suspense, plus high-concept lyrics about dead cities and celestial machinery, but the dramatic motor of Om's songs is Emil Amos, who replaced Chris Hakius in 2008: a clean-cut but completely bitchin' heavy metal drummer, thankfully the jazzy kind rather than the blastbeat kind. On his watch, there was no easing into the set: from the sound of the first bass note -- accompanied by a quiet symphony of lighter clicks and then a 400 percent increase in the room's ambient marijuana smell -- he was already building toward a monumental clatter, wilding out visibly faster than the song itself was loping along. (This would explain the progressive shirt-removings and towelings-off that took the place of banter for most of the set.)

Om strives for a lot of mileage from rather limited musical means -- but then, to put it in context, this act rose from the ashes of a band whose most famous song was 52 minutes long. Besides, Om's longest epics felt bite-sized after the evening's two opening acts, both of whom filled their stage time with sustained, evolving pieces rather than series of songs. 

  • Lichens

Lichens, Lowe's solo nom de drone, tends to flirt with formlessness on record, but last night's piece was unexpectedly crisp and patterned. Sitting rigid at the lip of the stage, arms reached into a box of wires and knobs, like Edison tinkering with the telephone prototype, Lowe laid down a vaguely discordant, old-school-futuristic computer loop, then let it accumulate fuzz and sediment. Eventually he added voice, a lush, delay-soaked whirr soaring through the piece like a ghost in a machine or a flock of doves in a cathedral; it was impressive less for what it was doing than for being a human voice at all.

Constant microscopic change isn't the same as consistent freshness, and the piece dragged at times, but on the whole it felt like a shared trance, not a performance. When it wound back down to just the computer burbles and tapered away, Lowe stood up slowly, wrung the tension from his hands, and still appeared to be returning from somewhere else as the lights came up.

San Francisco's Barn Owl, looking like two stick-thin (but bearded) librarians who had signed on to do a Robitussin-driven Black Sabbath tribute show but at the last minute couldn't find a drummer, played a calm, self-possessed doom-drone odyssey under a single stage light whose hue changed at glacial speed. Their explorations took them from textured, rippling surfaces of noise to Pink Floyd-like clusters of notes within clusters of notes to shimmering low-end distortion in the vein of Growing -- heavy in the way a thick, scratchy sweater is heavy. The transitions from one to the next were deliberate, but they only appeared slow: examined closely, each passage was moving swiftly toward somewhere new. This would be good with footage shot from a moving train, I thought to myself at one point. Then I realized that that was very likely what was being projected past the stage, onto nothing in particular.

Critic's notebook: Anyone care to explain why I left the Independent with a High On Fire song in my head?


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Daniel Levin Becker


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