Post doom: Bongripper and OM

Well no one strained any brain cells naming these bands. Post doom? Post Sludge? Whatever was going on in the mid-2000s, we’ve certainly seen an appetite for it this last decade; a quirky supplement to the on-trend Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats school of doom. But what worth, if any, does the music itself hold? Perhaps the ‘post’ tag is a bit unfair to apply to these artists, but they approached stoner doom with a sparse, minimalist philosophy, and the need to conjure some sort of unifying word for them both seemed necessary.

Chicago’s Bongripper are a funny one. Starting out as instrumental-melodic-sludge, informed by a generous helping of dirty redneck Americana a-la ‘Gummo’. The near immaculate ‘Hippie Killer’ LP in 2007 typified this sound. But then many were put off because they dared to release a noise album that same year; ‘Heroin’. More recently they have cashed in on the doom craze by aping the aesthetics and sound of the 1970s Satanica revival, but maintaining their instrumental gimmick. Squished between these two eras is 2008’s ‘Hate Ashbury’, the very definition of transitional.

‘Hate Ashbury’ is probably Bongripper’s darkest album, stretching the weird noise/ambience of ‘Heroin’ into bludgeoning and repetitive doom riffs complete with noise interludes and atmospheric clean passages. But it also works as a cohesive whole, more than follow-up ‘Satan Worshipping Doom’ (2009), which tries so hard to be a modern symphony but ultimately fails in its repetition. Bongripper work best when they embrace their minimalism, and supplement it with healthy layers of atmosphere and mood. ‘Hate Ashbury’ excels at all these things.

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It’s understated, but between the cracks is a pervasive and creepy tone to the album, of the darkness within small town USA. Since ‘Hippie Killer’ they seem to have lost their knack for writing melodies engaging and lasting enough to replace vocals. But on ‘Hate Ashbury’ this does not matter because so much work has gone into creating this dark atmosphere. It works more like a heavy ambient album, or indeed post rock. For that reason it’s probably best not to approach it as a rock album at all; there be boredom.

The appeal of this album is more subtle than the mesmerising instrumentation of their earlier works or the meathead doom of modern Bongripper. ‘Hate Ashbury’ has plenty of heavy riffs, and it has many curious nooks and crannies of noise. But they are all put to the service of creating a foreboding atmosphere of suburban solitude. Something unique to sprawling housing estates that stretch for miles, sleepy and lifeless, and the weird tricks of the eye and mind that take place within them. Whether Bongripper meant to achieve this or not is up for debate; it could well have been an accident, but the end result is what counts.

OM started life as the rhythm section of Sleep. Having realised they blossomed in the wrong era Al Cisneros and Chris Hakuis decided to cash in on past reputation by forming OM as a kind of stoner drone outfit of drums and bass and zero mental effort. But realising people would clock this fairly quickly they began to work Buddhist meditative chanting into the mix, and eventually features of Middle-Eastern music as well in the triumphant ‘Advaitic Songs’ (2012). But before this release listeners were made to sit through hours of loud and quiet bass noodling with drums that just couldn’t bring themselves to be interesting.

2007’s ‘Pilgrimage’ would be Hakuis’ last outing with OM, and maybe injecting new blood finally led to realising the potential of OM as a concept. Because an oriental inspired, minimalist take on stoner doom really does sound like an idea with legs. It’s just that they have only recently truly realised this with the aforementioned ‘Adviatic Songs’. Cisneros has since lost interest in this project given the renewed popularity of Sleep recently and the financial opportunities that a lazy, bloated Sleep-rebooted album offered. Shame.

So what to say of ‘Pilgrimage’ itself? Their debut ‘Variations on a Theme’ (2005)  really took the piss by putting the word ‘variations’ in the title. Follow up, 2006’s ‘Conference of the Birds’ made up for this by exploring the virtues of dynamics. But halfway through they lost interest and returned to uninspired droning. So this leaves ‘Pilgrimage’ as a sort of mashup of the two. To be fair, the meditative chanting aided by subtle yet intricate bass work has shown some improvement. And the dynamics are even harder hitting this time, with the heavy, distorted sections heavier than ever, and drums given more bulk in the mastering.

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But it’s quite clear that Hakuis just didn’t know what to do with this style of music. I’ve said on numerous occasions that drums are the cornerstone of any good doom music, especially one as a minimal and subtle as OM’s. This does not mean complex drumming necessarily, but drums that play into the spaces left by other instruments as much as performing time-keeping duties. This applies to all style of doom from My Dying Bride, to Winter, to Electric Wizard. But on ‘Pilgrimage’ they either follow the rhythm of the bass, or they simply pound along, relying on hard hits as a  substitute for imaginative rhythm.

So on the whole this makes for a frustrating album. The potential for growth within this novel music is there, but it is hopelessly unrealised on ‘Pilgrimage’. And given that this is album number three from these guys, who were already well established musicians at the time, this is deeply disappointing. This does make for good background music. But this is hardly a unique trait in stoner doom. The kindest thing one could say is that everything was moving in the right direction when considering the albums that preceded it, and with hindsight they continued to develop on subsequent releases. It’s just a shame OM is on hold while the Sleep buck is milked for all its worth. Watch this space I guess.

It’s no secret that I don’t hold stoner doom in the highest regard, even less so anything with ‘post’ in the tagline. But there are diamonds in these roughs. ‘Pilgrimage’ is not one of them. ‘Hate Ashbury’ on the other hand remains a rare fluke from an otherwise pretty dull band. My theory is that when one embraces the fact that you excel at dull music, a genuinely interesting exploration of sparse and raw atmosphere can result. This is not to be found in interesting riffs or heroic guitar solos, but in putting drone and noise to the service of a dark eerie atmosphere all of its own. The music doesn’t really go anywhere. But this puts it in bed with all decent ambient music. As for OM, best avoid their earlier works, but the potential for interesting music is present for those that really want to see it.

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