Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Al Cisneros Mysteries Part II

Q: "But anyway, my question is when you listen to a lot of new bands of that variety who are emulating your style of singing, how does it feel?"
A: "I don’t really listen to stoner metal. There are so many kinds that it’s just really boring. So I don’t even know if I’d get to the vocal part. [laughs] I’d rather listen to Sabbath. There aren’t very many metal albums since Vol. 4 that are vital. There are some, but not many."
Q: "What’s on your list of influences, aside from Vol. 4?"
A: "Hmm. At this point, The Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads. Those are far heavier. They affect the heart in the way that Sabbath did when me and Matt met. That’s a thousand times heavier. That’s it."
-- Oregon Music News interview with Al Cisneros

Welcome to the second installment in my examination of bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros, he of the stoner metal legends Sleep as well more esoteric leaning projects such as Om and Shrinebuilders. During the first installment I primarily focused on Cisneros' background as well as his work with Sleep, a band whose rich imagination enabled a mythos far more substantive outfits could scarcely match.

While no doubt many scoffed at the spiritual musings of Cisneros and fellow Sleep mates guitarist Matt Pike and drummer Chris Hakius expressed during their initial reefer-riddled, Black Sabbath-worshipping run (Sleep disbanded in 1998), few would question Cisneros' (as well Hakius') sincerity after he unleashed Om on the world in 2003. During the five, nearly six year, period that separated Sleep from Om, Cisneros seems to have done much soul searching. In an interview with The Quietus questioning him about his absence from music, he enigmatically noted:
"Yeah, and that’s essential – I think it’s essential for people to take time out if they need it. I mean, we started our first band when we were like 13/14; recorded, started playing shows – so by the time Sleep was breaking up we hadn’t even lived the other side of life. And obviously in metal culture specifically, it is all self destruction. That’s all you see around you and that’s all you participate in. It’s pretty much a siphon. So, yeah, I’m thankful that I did that. Or else who knows, there probably wouldn’t have been an OM, there wouldn’t have been this conversation, or today. I’m just happy to be here now. And I’m glad I did it.
"This is a good time to explain something actually. When Sleep started, when we started playing music, the big difference between then and now is that I thought that the music was its own primary light and I realised by taking that break after all those things had happened with the band breaking up, going through all that time without music, now I see music as a reflection of the primary life, which is your path, and that’s the primary light, the path is the primary light and music reflects that – when we first started playing I thought that the music was its own light but that’s not a sustainable thing, there has to be a source for it and I had to learn that."
What this "light" led Cisneros to is easily one of the most novel heavy metal outfits to emerge in years. The first thing about Om that immediately stands out was its initial composition: a duo comprised of Cisneros and his former Sleep compatriot, drummer Chris Hakius. The band featured no guitar for many years and has only recently begun to incorporate some six string sparingly with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Robert Lowe.

Of course the notion of a metal band without a guitar player is still quite novel in 2015 and largely unheard of in 2003. As might be expected, the sound Cisneros and Hakius pursued had an alien quality to it. Cisneros of course brought the lumbering low end he deployed in Sleep with him, but to his playing he added extensive use of Middle Eastern scales. Combined with the chant like singing Cisneros devised and Hakius' busy and always exotic drumming, the sound Om unleashed sounded like the soundtrack playing amongst the ruins of an alien civilization on a distant planet.

Cisneros and Hakius circa 2007 shortly before the latter retired from music
The closet comparison this researcher can come up with are occasional moments on Pink Floyd's Saucerful of Secrets album (especially "Let There Be More Light"). But Floyd were certainly never this heavy and rarely as mystical. The structures of Om's early work alone were based upon those of Tibetan and Byzantine chants. And of course this mystical component is made evident right off the bat with the group's name, which is deeply significant in Hindu traditions as well as more esoteric schools. Let us start with the Hindu concept of Om (typically spelled as "Aum" in older texts):
"The symbol most highly charged with Hindu tradition is the monosyllable, Om. It is the primeval and inaudible sound, the creation sound from which manifestation evolves, and is hence the image of the Word. It is imperishable and inexhaustible (akshara), the very essence of the Vedas and hence of Indian traditional knowledge. It is the symbol of Ganesha and corresponds to the swastika, emblem of the cyclical evolution of manifestation expanding from its immovable primeval centre.
"The sound 'Om' may be broken down into three elements – A, U and M (AUM) – controlling an inexhaustible list of threefold divisions: the three Vedas (Rig, Yajur and Sama); the three states of being (wakefulness, jagaritsa-sthana, corresponding to Vaishvanara; dream, svapna-sthana, corresponding to Taijasa; deep sleep, sushupta-sthana, corresponding to Prajna); three periods of time (dawn, noonday and dusk); three worlds (Bhu, Earth; Svar, Heaven; Bhuvas, atmosphere) and hence the three states of manifestation (gross, shapeless and subtle); three elements (Agni, Fire; Aditya, Sun; Vayu, Wind); three modalities or guna  (rajas, expansive; sattva, cohesive or ascendant; tamas, destructive or descendent ); three gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva); three powers (action, knowledge and will)... There is, furthermore, a fourth aspect of the monosyllable: its sound as a whole is  indeterminate when analyzed independently of three elements which comprise it. It corresponds to the undifferentiated state of Oneness and therefore to a spiritual actualization of the highest importance, the mantra of mantras. The Upanishads tell us that it is the bow, the self being the arrow and Brahma the target. In addition Guenon has noted the correspondence between the monosyllable and the three elements of Vishnu's conch, the shell which holds the seed from which will spring the cycle to come."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 717)

As for the most esoteric, Crowley offered an interesting take on Om:
"The word AUM is the sacred Hindu mantra which is the supreme hieroglyph of Truth, a compendium of the Sacred Knowledge. Many volumes have been written with regard to it; but, for our present purpose, it will be necessary only to explain how it came to serve for the representation of the principal philosophical tenets of the rishis.
"Firstly, it represents a complete course of sound. It is pronounced by forcing the breath from the back of the throat with the mouth wide open, through the buccal cavity with the lips so shaped as to modify the sound from A to O (or U), to the closed lips, when it becomes M. Symbolically, this announces the course of nature as proceeding from free and formless creation through controlled and formed preservation to the silence of destruction. The three sounds are harmonized into one; and thus the word represents the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Visnu, and Siva, and the operation in the Universe of their triune energy. It is thus the formula of a manvantara, or a period of manifested existence, which alternates with a pralaya, during which creation is latent.
"Analyzed Qabalistically the word is found to possess similar properties. A is the negative, and also the unity which concentrates it into a positive form. A is the Holy Spirit who begets God in the flesh upon the Virgin, according to the formula familiar to students of The Golden Bough. A is also the 'Babe in the Egg' thus produced. The quality of A is thus bisexual. It is the original being – Zeus Arrhenothelus, Bauchus Diphues, or Baphomet.
"A or V is the manifested son himself. Its number is 6. It refers, therefore, to the dual nature of the logos as divine and human; the interlacing of the upright and averse triangles in the Hexagram. It is the first number of the Sun, whose last number is 666, 'the number of a man.'
"The letter M exhibits the termination of this process. It is 'The Hanged Man' of the Tarot; the formation of the individual from the absolute is close by his death.
"We see accordingly how AUM is, in either system, the expression of a dogma which implies catastrophe in Nature. It is cognate with the formula of the Slain God. The 'resurrection' and 'ascension' are not implied in it. They are later inventions without basis in necessity; they may be described indeed as Freudian phantasms conjured up by the fear of facing reality. To the Hindu, indeed, they are still less respectable. In his view, existence is essentially objectionable; and his principal concern is to invoke Siva to destroy the illusion whose thrall is the  curse of the manvantara."
(Book 4, Aleister Crowley, pgs. 170-171)
Certainly any number of these themes are present in Om's catalog. Its also interesting to note that Aum has also been associated with the swan. As was noted in the first installment of this series, Cisneros' last name references swans. And indeed swans are mentioned quite frequently in Om's early lyrics. "On the Mountain at Dawn," the opening track on Om's debut album Variations on a Theme. makes striking use of the phrase "Ascends the swan toward sun in breath drawn life deliverance" while their sophomore outing, Conference of the Birds, references swans in both of its two extended tracks. Swans also appear on the cover of that album. But moving along.

As may be expected, Om's albums draw extensively on Hindu scriptures as well as Mystery, Sufi and especially Gnostic schools. John the Baptist has appeared in striking depictions on the group's prior three albums. The greater Christopher Knowles did a fine job of breaking down John's heavy significance in Gnosticism before here. But it is the lyrics that are most noteworthy.

In an interview with the Oregon Music News Cisneros claimed that Variations on a Theme could be the name of Om's entire canon and it is not especially hard to see why: practically every song could be described as a ode to initiation. This made evident from the get go by the above-mentioned "On the Mountain at Dawn," the first song off of the band's debut.

Ear splitting feedback opens the track for a few seconds before a lumbering, fuzzed out bass line emerges. Drums join in and then follow references to the Black Sun right off the bat. This topic has been addressed in greater depth before here but clearly Cisneros is using the image of the Black Sun in its alchemical context as a metaphor for unworked primal matter. Shortly thereafter he encourages his listeners to "look out to onto red bled sun the hierophant is seeding." A hierophant is an interpreter of sacred mysteries and arcane principles in general and specifically was the title of the chief priest of the Eleusinian Mysteries. And of course there are those swan references as well as name droppings of anchorites (a title for a kind of religious hermit deriving from Ancient Greece).

The second track, "Kapila's Theme," is named after the Vedic sage and continues the theme of transcending and rebirth advanced in the album opener. The final track, "Annapurna," takes its name from a sacred mountain range in Nepal and seems to mark a triumphant completion of initiation. Cisneros proclaims "Lazarus advance the flight to freedom." As Christopher Knowles noted before here, Lazarus is viewed in some arcane traditions as a stand in for Osiris, one the premier death-and-rebirth gods and who was a key figure in the Egyptian Mysteries.

Lazarus being risen from the dead
Om's sophomore outing, The Conference of the Birds, derived its name an extended poem by the Persian Sufi Farid ud-Din Attar. Being unfamiliar with this work, this researcher can not weigh in on the extent it may have influenced the themes present in the album. Regardless, it opens with the monster groove of "At Giza",  possibly the closet Om have come to emulating Sleep. The song title itself is of course a reference to the Great Pyramid while allusions to ziggurats, obelisks and even "Lebanon reeds" are made at different parts of the track. All of these things have been associated with sites of initiation. With "Flight of the Eagle", the album's second and final track, Cisneros once again urges transcendence over matter, and seemingly advocates a return of consciousness to the stars.

note the use of swans on the cover of Conference of the Birds
The group's third album, Pilgrimage, was the last to feature original drummer Chris Hakius and the first to feature an image of John the Baptist on the cover. At the time, this was easily the group's most ambitious and diverse work. As the reader may have guessed, the tracks on Variations on a Theme and The Conference of the Birds were all quite long, frequently clocking in around the fifteen minute mark. By contrast, Pilgrimage stretches out to four tracks with one of them ("Pilgrimage (Reprise)") even clocking in at under five minutes. Another, "Unitive Knowledge of the Godhead", is just under six while the more epic length songs, "Pilgrimage" and "Bhima's Theme" clock in at roughly ten and eleven and half minutes respectively.

As with the prior albums, this one is essentially a kind of loose concept album concerning the process of initiation. The album follows the figure of the "Pilgrim", who is undergoing this process. The title track and opener chronicles the onset of this journey. It marked a bit of a departure for Om, with Cisneros largely forgoing distortion on his bass and instead crafting a spacey atmosphere over which Hakius' tribal drumming and the chant-like singing set the stage for the mystical journey ahead.

Cisneros finds the distortion pedal  on the next track, "Unitive  Knowledge of the Godhead", as the journey becomes more difficult. Here Lazarus is again referenced and indeed his rising from the dead is an apt metaphor for the goal of most initiates. The transition from the title track to "... Godhead" is quite jarring, but only a warm up for the full on assault of "Bhima's Theme." The track derives its name from a mythical figure that appears in the Mahabharata. This extended jam is a reminder of both how heavy Om can be as well as the horrors of initiation. With this track Cisneros sticks to largely minimalistic lyrics over the bludgeoning groove but again invokes Lazarus in a refrain. It has a midsection that briefly returns to mellow space bass of the title track in which Cisneros reprises the song's three verses before the distortion again returns.

Bhima, an apt figure for the audio assault bearing his name
The final track, "Pilgrimage (Reprise)", is a return to the title track and its spacey atmosphere. Here the Pilgrim emerges triumphant from initiation, Cisneros proclaiming "Reacher of state of non-return; the stream attained in non-duality." And so concludes Hakius' final outing with Om.
With the next album, 2009's God is Good, Cisneros was joined by Grails drummer Emil Amos. While it may be sacrilege to say so, Amos was is in some ways an even better foil to Cisneros than Hakius. Certainly Amos would expand the range of percussion used by Om, bringing a host of exotic instruments.

The album also continued in the same ambitious vein as Pilgrimage. For the first time instruments other than bass, drums and vocals were used on an Om album, with a tambura, flute and cello being used to good effect. It also marked the first appearance of multi-instrumentalist Robert Lowe, who would later join the group. Lowe played the tambura as well as contributing vocals.

Lowe is put to good effect on the opening track, "Thebes." The song, which takes its name from the legendary cities in Greece and Egypt. The Egyptian Thebes was located near the Valley of the Kings and featured the Karnak Temple Complex which was one of the main shrines for the god Amun. Amun would later be fused with the sun god Ra and became Amun-Ra, the chief god of the later Egyptian pantheon. There was also a temple to Amun in Greece's Thebes as well. Greek Thebes was also associates with Orpheus, Dionysus and Hercules, all figures who appear in the Greek Mysteries.

After the mystical opening, "Thebes" lurches into a distorted bass groove that echoes the group's early work. It is also a longer track, clocking in at just under twenty minutes. Featuring more references to Lebanon and "Damascus road traveler", the track more than lives up to Om's epic takes on transcendence.

The second track, "Mediation is the Practice of Dying", returns to the spacey atmosphere of "Pilgrimage", but this time with added flute. This track features the group's first direct reference to John the Baptist as well as shot outs to the figures of  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as well Melchizedek. The latter figure appeared prominently in several Gnostic texts, some of whom likened him to Jesus Christ. The title to this track is also interesting in that certain schools of occult philosophy such as those of Crowley and the Baron Julius Evola hold that the mastering of meditation (or "silence") is the first step in attaining immortality, or mastery over death. But moving along.

Melchizedek blessing Abraham; Melchizedek appears again in Om's lyrics
The final two tracks, "Cremation Ghat I" and "Cremation Ghat II", are the first full on instrumentals the group included on a full length album. The tracks employ more exotic instruments for a striking atmosphere. The titles are of course an allusion to the Indian practice of shmashana, which frequently takes place in river ghats.

The group's fifth and most recent album, Advaitic Songs, is easily the group's most ambitious to date. Flutes, cellos and Robert Lowe's tambura appear once again along with pianos, violins, table and even some guitar. The opening track, "Addis", puts listeners on notice as to just how far the group has come. Of it The Queitus remarks:
"'Addis', the opening track of Advaitic Songs, features a female vocalist singing in Hindi, yet the track's title evokes (intentionally or not), the capital of Ethiopia, land of Coptic Christianity and frequent reference point for Rastafarianism. The track in itself is beguiling and beautiful, the woman's gorgeous voice supported by tablas, strings and Cisneros and Amos' intricate rhythmic interplay. Whatever the intentions, 'Addis' aptly mirrors the album title and cover's focus on theological philosophy, both Eastern (Advaita) and Western (Christian). Given how many Anglo-American musicians have seemed ridiculous when looking to exotic India or their Judeo-Christian roots for inspiration, you get the feeling that Om know their shit."

Indeed. The second track, "State of Non-Return", is easily the most classically Om track on the album. Driven by a massively distorted bass groove, the track none the less still displays blatant growth via the use of strings. "Gethsemane" refers to the garden in which Jesus and his disciples spent their last night together. The tack references concepts such as Prana and devekut as well as Eziekel's vision of the Wheel. Track four, "Sinai", is a reference to a peninsula in Egypt near the Red Sea that has been the site of much conflict in the nation's history. With lines mentioning Melchizedek and "Lebanon priests ascending", this track lyrically echoes God is Good. The closing track, "Haqq Al-Yaqin", derives its name from a Sufi concept, continues in the same initiatory vein.

And it is here I shall wrap things up for now. Hopefully the reader has found something intriguing in Om, easily one of the metaphysically inclined groups to come along in a long time. With their deeply esoteric lyrical musings and always innovative sound, Al Cisneros has embarked upon a bold journey testing the spiritual potential of rock music. While some listeners believe Om long ago became lost in the ambers, the open minded listener will find much to marvel at in their canon.

For now, until next time dear reader.


  1. Smoke Weed Everyday!

  2. Amazing article, I´ve been a big fan of Al since the beginning, it motivates me to continue to evolve musically and spiritually. Congratulations on your writing!

  3. Hi! Great articule, just wanted to add something. Al has a tatoo of a mandala of his own design in his left hand, and guess what, it is a swan design with a serpent. Pretty cool tatoo, it appears in Advaintic Songs vinyl pressing (I don't know of it is on the cd) and also you can clearly see it in "State of non-return" video. Cool band, waiting for the new Sleep in 2017. Cheers!

  4. Awesome article about an awesome band. Awesome in the true sense of "full of awe"

    I've been on a similar path as Al and just recently discovered them. It is a great feeling to see someone in a creative and influential position in life put the same pieces together in the same way. My jaw dropped the first I listened to and has continued dropping.

    Al, OM and Sleep are on to something deep and real. hey there are fucking cities in the ancient middle east named after cannabis. they knew the stuff quite well. Isrealites used several pounds in their official temple incense. burning several pounds of weed in a closed tent! Weedians my friends.

    My best to the author who worked hard on these articles (Pt 1 & 2) and To Al, and all who contributed to OM and Sleep. May the Force continue to be with you all. (Force, God, Divinity, Brahma - variations on a theme)

  5. This is a fantastic deep dive into the mystical realms of Al "Mr Swan" (?) Cisneros. Just got home from seeing re-ignited lineup of Sleep and these two posts are just what the doctor ordered.

    One note -- I don't think that's J the B on the cover of Pilgrimage -- the wings signify "angel". Very possibly him on the cover of Advaitic Songs though.

    Thank you!!!