The cover of Pilgrimage shows an angel with a serene expression on her face. The artist would have us believe that she’s got a medieval halo around her head, but we know better. That’s actually a pair of noise-canceling headphones, and clearly she’s listening to Om’s third album. How else to explain that ambiguous Mona Lisa smile, poised somewhere between beatific joy and ironic smirk?
Traditionally, Om — comprising bassist/singer Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius — has reached for transcendence through subtraction. With no guitar, minimal development of already limited bass/drum patterns, and an inert vocalist declaiming metaphysical tractates in a monotone chant, Om’s previous album, 2006’s Conference of the Birds, was so dedicated as to seem naive. It was over-the-top in its understatement, and the whole thing came off as contrived and laughably sober for a band so committed to inducing higher states of consciousness.
The building blocks of Pilgrimage aren’t significantly different from those of its predecessor, but when you start off with such a limited palette, even the tiniest variations carry great impact. Tom-toms and tambourine hits drive the four pulsing bass notes of the title track faster and faster, a pagan lullaby for some slumbering beast. The beast awakes a minute into "Unitive Knowledge of the Godhead," when Cisneros’s fuzz bass kicks in and Hakius starts assaulting his kit. With that one tap of a distortion pedal, Pilgrimage blows wide open, the heads begin to bang, and we’re reminded why these guys were the rhythm section for the pioneering stoner-metal band Sleep. "Bhima’s Theme" splits the difference between the first two tracks, sandwiching a short passage of quiet bass and vocal noodling between eight minutes of crash and burn.
The visceral crunch of Pilgrimage‘s middle two tracks make it far easier to tolerate than earlier Om material, and yet it’s also a little deceiving. It’s their best album because it’s their most variegated album, but that’s not saying much. Nothing has changed about Om’s approach, and not even a distortion pedal and some proper (or near enough) metal riffing can hide the fact that Cisneros and Hakius are still unconcerned with thematic development and songcraft. More power to them for continuing their march toward the light, but I’ll stick with their old band for my navel-gazing.