You can't give full credit to Sleep for inventing stoner rock, but they did help perfect the shotgun wedding of doom metal and Sabbath inspired licks alongside Kyuss and Monster Magnet (first couple of records only) around the late ’80s/early ’90s. And undoubtedly, their epochal song/album Jerusalem (which was reissued a couple of ears ago as a longer, superior mix under the track's original name Dopesmoker) serves as an aural high water mark for stoners looking to bang heads in time with their bong hits. Sadly, the fracas surrounding the album - namely the fact that major label London was kind of pissy about the trio taking two years and a six figure advance and returning with the highly unmarketable end result - imploded the band. Om reunites the rhythm section from that magically delicious record, pairing drummer Chris Hakius with bassist Al Cisneros for the three lengthy tracks that make up Variations on a Theme.
Comparisons to Sleep are pretty much unavoidable when talking about this album. After all, two-thirds of Jerusalem/Dopesmoker's creative force are once again gathered here. And much like their previous band, Hakius and Cisneros plug in for close to 45 minutes of riff-tastic jams. But in the absence of Matt Pike's guitar, the duo manage to deviate enough so that this isn't just a stripped down rehash. Confined to only drums, bass, and vocals, Cisneros and Hakius bolt down their rhythms and replace the loose structuring of Sleep with tighter arrangements and heavier reliance on minimal repetition. The name "Om" is thus fitting, pimped from its Buddhist and Hinduism meanings to imply the fundamental essence of stoner rock: the bass groove, the crashing cymbals and booming percussion.
Variations on a Theme is an appropriate title as well, as the band hardly diverges from one central idea over the course of the albums three tracks. "On the Mountain at Dawn" sets the tone quickly for all that follows - a distorted, snaking bass line undulates on top of the steady thump of the drums while Cisneros intones lyrics that, surprisingly, seem to be free of any cryptic pot-smoking references. The pair lock into passages of throbbing intensity, but still never give in to any desire to deviate from the patterns they establish. At times it has the vague effect of maybe an Indian raga or a Can jam, using subtle variations in the repetition of a basic pattern to achieve a maximum effect, but it always holds true to central rock tenets, never once segueing into awkward cultural appropriations or vague Kraut-rock stylings.
"Kapila's Theme" hits the same stoner mainline, only at a slower pace this time, dwelling on the reverberations from Cisneros' basslines in between his vocal chants. And "Annapurna" is the highlight of the disc. The rhythm is a little less straightforward, the bass sounds thicker than syrup, and the duo work a successful crescendo to the album's massive, fist-pumping climax.
Connoisseurs of this type of material aren’t likely to find a lot new here, but the fact that it's all rhythmic intensity with exactly zero guitar puts a nice spin on things, and with engineering duties handled by the great Billy Anderson, there's a great balance between instrumental clarity and the necessary murky, muddy sound quality that makes a good stoner rock record into a great one. In the end, though, it's nice to see Hakius and Cisneros reunite to pick up where they left off in the mid-’90s with Sleep and issue a record that seems to sound better and better the louder you turn up the volume. Amidst the current crop of navel-gazing, self obsessed indie rockers, Variations on a Theme sounds like a breath of doob-tinged fresh air.
By Michael Crumsho