In a way, the legendary Dopesmoker was almost a prophetic vision of what the two now-legendary post-Sleep projects would look like. On the one hand, Matt Pike took the non-Euclidean riffage of a Cyclopean scape, creating High on Fire to crush his enemies, see them driven before him, and hear the lamentation of their women. Al Cisneros and the now-departed Chris Hakius, however, formed Om and wandered deep into the uncharted wastelands of the Drone Desert on a multi-year pilgrimage that brought them from the minimalist monstrosities of Variations on a Theme to a lighter sound incorporating a multitude of Eastern instrumentation on God is Good. And while the new direction on God is Good introduced some well-implemented new elements to their sound, it was mostly devoid of the rapturous, sky-quaking moments that made every single moment of something like “Bhima’s Theme” from Pilgrimage worth listening to. Advaitic Songs aims to perfect this mix, and in some places you can definitely feel the sand in your face and the sway of the imaginary camel you’re riding on. But after a few listens, it’s still noticeably lacking anything that cracks your skull open with the sheer power of the divine.
I’m not saying the album can’t be heavy – this is still the same Al Cisneros that was in Sleep, mind you! He knows his way around a killer riff, and “State of Non-Return” has one of the most monster fuzz tones I’ve ever heard any bass guitar from this side of the galaxy produce. But the majority of the album is dominated by lighter drones which incorporate a piano, vocal choruses, string sections, and ritualistic Hindu and Islamic chants to create a sound that’s as lush as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It’s a welcome change from the minimalist approach that dominated their early recordings, but the implementation is still as flawed as it was on God Is Good. Tracks like “Sinai” and “Haqq al-Yaqin” kind of wander around in the same deserts for their entire duration – these wanderings are just a little over ten minutes, but sometimes they feel like forty years. Compare this to “On the Mountain at Dawn” from Variations on a Theme, a song that’s twice the length of those but incredibly more engaging because it knew where it was going. Even Dopesmoker had a destination in mind! Most of the album is pretty devoid of the moments on Om’s earlier stuff that bursts into your mind and commands your attention with a divine authority – on “Gethsemane,” Al sings about how “Ezekiel saw the wheel,” but there’s nothing there in the music to make me feel like I just caught a glimpse of the chariots of God. The songs are enjoyable to put on in the background, but they’re not likely to hold your attention; it’s a kind of paradoxical relationship where there’s more elements present in the music, but there’s less there to listen to.
I’m not going to lie and say that I didn’t enjoy the album. I’m definitely not going to lie and say that I didn’t enjoy listening to it more than once. The musicianship is great enough that I could listen to Al noodle on the bass and Emil hammer away on the skins forever. I’m just disappointed that Om’s new formula still doesn’t sound entirely fleshed out, even with more bells and whistles than before. If you’ve enjoyed their recent direction there’s definitely more to love for you here, but if you need something engrossing and earth-shattering then you’re better off sticking with Conference of the Birds, or any of their earlier work. My problem isn’t that some parts on the album sound like the kind of music you’d hear in that store in the mall that sells crystals and incense. It’s that the good moments aren’t frequent enough to distract me from that fact.