Om with Daniel Higgs, Sons of Otis and Wyrd Visions at The Great Hall, Sunday, November 18. Rating: NNN
There's a pleasure that emerges in hearing a band really dig into a riff, playing it again and again and again, driving the listener into a state of sonic hypnosis. Om are great at this. The California stoner metal trio - recently expanded to a three-piece after bringing multi-instrumentalist Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe into the fold - has built a bleary-eyed fanbase on plodding, experimental, sweeping side-long opuses. Om albums like Conference Of The Birds or their latest, Advaitic Songs, work like heavy metal furniture music, their riff-driven intensity diffused into a sustained, gloomy, ambience.
After an overlong run of openers kicked off by Toronto experimental snooze-rocker Wyrd Visions (does anybody actually like this guy's music?) and vintage Big Smoke doom metallers Sons of Otis - whose echo-driven set ran way too long, thanks in large part to an extended, formless blues-rock jam - and rounded out by ex-Lungfish frontman Daniel Higgs, playing an intimate oddball banjo set, Om lumbered on stage at Toronto's Great Hall just before midnight on Sunday. Opening with Sinai, complete with tape-looped incantations, the band rewarded the patience of those who got there early, whose highs had waned into half-awake grogginess.
Om's live shows split the difference between a lethally heavy doom metal concert and a weedy religious ritual. It was fitting, for a Sunday night. Some twisted and danced like no one was watching; others tucked into hoodies pitched back-and-forth at the waist like one of those toy dipping birds; many just stood there, eyes half closed, a sea of toques nodding in unison - headbanging at 33 rpm. One guy, probably one of those pesky "ironic" "hipsters" everyone was reading about this weekend, was wearing a literal Mad Hatter-style top hat, proverbial freak flag flapping in the night.
Despite scattered tech issues dogging the first few songs, the result of the Great Hall's sound engineer apparently asleep at the switchboard, the band persevered. Bassist/singer Al Cisneros hunched over his instrument, head wheeling around like a cartoon turtle grooving to a Dixieland jug band. After ridding his mic of delay effects (a hangover from the Sons of Otis set), Cisneros' half-chanted vocals were considerably clearer. Well, as "clear" as lyrics about ancient mythical birds, geodesic temples, trans-dimensional pathways, and other hilariously heady galactic-spiritual stuff can possibly be, anyway.
The obvious highlight was the epic closer, Bhima's Theme from 2007's Pilgrimage. Beginning with Cisneros's laborious bass grooves, filled in by Lowe's accompanying vocal effects (he sounded like he had a Theremin crammed into his mouth), the band methodically stoked the atmosphere. Then, drummer Emil Amos came thundering in, ringing the crowd back into the streets with a volley of echoing cymbal crashes. Before shuffling off stage, Cisneros said he hoped the band would be back in Toronto soon. And while it had the ring of half-sincere stage patter, the deeply entranced Hogtown audience would be lucky to welcome them back.