Saturday, 5 September 2009
Apparently, God Is Good. Shame About The Fucking Music Though
Anyone who knows me knows I fucking love everything Om had done up to and including Pilgrimage. I wasn't particularly impressed with the Gebel Barkal 7"*, but I thought ok, new drummer (Emil Amos) , needs a little time to settle in, he's a bit stiff but he's got some serious shoes to fill and coming from a band (Grails) whose music is far denser in both arrangement and instrumentation than Om's stripped to the bone minimalist doom probably isn't used to his playing being so exposed, and is possibly over-compensating for this by playing too damn much**. I also thought (hoped, prayed), that the clicky 90s drum sound was just down to the circumstances of the recording. Essentially, I'd heard a dodgy track by one of my favourite bands and was trying to convince myself that this was a temporary aberration, a brief lapse caused by a major upheaval in personnel.
It wasn't. At least not if the new Om album is anything to go by. It sucks balls. Badly. Almost everything that made Om beautiful seems absent. It's half-arsed, badly mixed and stinks of patchouli. Whereas the Om of old could weave magic from just a bass, a drumkit and the most ridiculous lyrics in rock history delivered in a monotone chant, creating an nonsensical occult otherworld of devotional doom, the new Om pile on the extra instruments like a hippy hot for enlightenment, trying out every guru in town in search of The Way. There's a fucking unspeakably shit flute solo at one point that sounds like it was played by the worst kind of classically trained twat trying to be "spiritual" (seriously, it's fucking horrible), and it's prissy funklessness sums up one of this album's three main faults; (what feels like) a lack of confidence in their material, buried under a mound of sitars and tambouras, bongos and tablas, guitar and piano in an attempt to cover up the fact that there are no new ideas on this record whatsoever.
Seriously, whereas Al's chant used to be unbroken throughout the verse, sounding like the meter of the words had been arrived at through a combination of the length of a breath and the rhythm the words rode on, now it's just sung like any other song, and the basslines that the songs would be carried by are buried in the mix, probably to disguise the fact that most of them are not just reminiscent of, but plainly identical to, the basslines on Conference Of The Birds*** with one note raised a semitone here or there. I've got nothing against repeating yrself, or reprising or quoting an earlier tune, but only if the new version adds something, lifts it into something higher or recontextualises it into something utterly new, all of which this record utterly fails to do. Al's weird quavering baritone is mixed far too high, draws too much attention to itself, sits on top of the mix instead of inhabiting it as an instrument, and he's just not got the voice for that sort of presentation. The vocals were always as much texture as anything else on the previous LPs, but here they're in sharp focus and it just don't work. Al Cisneros (somewhat disingenuously in my opinion) has always been at pains to point out the essential meaningless of his lyrics previous to this point, his ransacking of the world's sacred texts for words and quotes meant to evoke, not to preach, meant to evoke a flight from this plane to another, hence the huge number of allegories and metaphors for death, flight and rebirth that litter his lyrics, and when they were on equal footing with the music, it worked, conveyed a sense of the transcendent, the immaterial, a glimpse of the other, but upfront and leading the way they have the opposite effect. They become the focal point, no longer part of the holistic weave of the music, and it relegates everything else to background or ornamentation.
Coming back to the added instruments, what bothers me is so many of them sound like afterthoughts, the piano and guitar especially. The guitar playing is appalling. Stilted, souless, pointless. Amazingly, the piano is worse. It sounds like they were in the studio and someone noticed one of the rooms had a piano in it and said "oooh, let's put that on it" just because they could - I was a studio engineer for years, and this would happen all the time with instruments in the studio, but pianos, especially grands, seem to have a weird effect on some musicians, they had to have the big piano on the record even if they could barely play the fucking thing - it sounds like an afterthought, it's clunky and ham-fisted, ruins any atmosphere that was there before it's entrance (same with the guitar) and the way it's mixed completely fails to integrate the piano into the soundscape. Which brings me to the second huge problem wth this record: The mix.
It sounds like it was mixed by an idiot with no ears. And recorded by one, which is odd, because it was recorded by Steve Albini, who also did Pilgrimage, which sounded like the walls of Jericho falling in very slow motion, whereas this sounds like a revolting cross between Pink Floyd and Current 93. The drum sound, and this is one area I normally expect Albini to shine****, is just horrible, a halfway house between Scott Burns' patented clicky early Death Metal sound and Phil Collins' gated 80s horror. Now knowing Albini, he's probably just recorded the drum sound the way Emil wanted it recorded, but it's lifeless, cold and undynamic, and at points, sounds suspiciously like it's been brickwalled, a practice that's way too prevalent these days, possibly because these days there's less and less of us who actually understand the art of recording shit properly. As I've previously noted, the bass is often much lower in the mix than before, and for a band that (ignoring overdubs) is at it's heart a bass and drums duo that smacks of a lack of confidence, and it also robs the bass of it's overarching harmonic contribution to the sound which has previously been utterly essential, god fucking damn it, if someone is playing a beautiful old Rickenbacker bass, I want to hear that it's a Rick, that gorgeous combination of thrum and clank that only a horseshoe pickup equipped instrument can put out. But it just ain't there, the bass sound is anonymous and ignorable and that's a fucking sin. All the overdubs just sort of sit there, floating on the top like scum on a stagnant lake, starving the music of oxygen. It all just sounds so careless, like a couple of hopeless stoners***** sharing a pair of headphones mixed the fucker at home in about the time it takes to listen to after a couple of massive chillums.
The worst thing though? The really big problem? You've got the wrong fucking drummer Al. I've seen people describing Emil Amos as more jazzy, more complex than Chris Hakius. Please. The Hakius is (yes, we've been here before, many times) the jazziest drummer in Doom. Too many people confuse technicality with 'jazziness' (stupid fucking word). The beauty of the old Om was their ability to play the same thing in so many different ways without ever losing that rolling, loping groove that held it all down, and the sound of a beautifully resonant down tuned kit interacting with the bass, but with Emil's higher pitched kit, that sonic interaction is lost. Sure they play pretty well together, but it doesn't lock in, doesn't sound like one four armed beast. Listen to some early 70s electric Jazz; Old Om is like Michael Henderson and Al Foster in Miles' '75 group, new Om is more Rick Laird and Billy Cobham in Mahavishnu Orchestra - more complex, but sound and fury signifying nothing as opposed to an organic evolving rhymthic octopus. When others describe Emil's drumming as jazzier that just suggests to me that whoever wrote that doesn't know fucking shit about jazz. Most of his fills sound like slowed down thrash fills, all parade ground flams and paradiddles, and he just can't fucking lock into Al's groove. And for me that's the absolute crux of the problem, this Om has no flow, it's stiff, boring and desperate to overcompensate for those shortcomings.
And don't even get me started on the hippy christian clapping circle bit. David Tibet meets Iron John. No one needs that in their lives.
*Sneaked out on the Sub Pop Singles Club because it sounds like a shoddy demo. Don't even get me started on the b-side 'Version'. Dub does not mean adding a crap melodica solo and rubbish echo, I know they're American, but please...
**Common drummer ailment, symptoms normally allevaited by beer, weed or being shouted at.
***Amazingly, this album isn't as bad as Live Conference - The new Om playing the old Om's finest moment and fucking it up royally. Don't go there.
****Albini can be a little lacksidasical with guitars and other stuff occasionally, but normally the drums sound a). like a drum kit - which is fairly unusual in itself, go and listen to someone playing a drum kit, then listen to almost any record from the last 30 years, there's not much resemblence - and b). wonderful; resonant, woody and clear. Go and have a listen to Rid Of Me by PJ Harvey for a record where the drums and vocals sound like heaven and the bass and guitars just.. lack something.
*****I may be a complete fucking pothead, but I never, ever mix battered. It's not worth it, you just have to mix again the day after when y're vaguely sober.