In the Room with the Doom
Ommadon are a United Kingdom drone-doom duo, sprouted from the decaying corpse of post-rock/doom-metal band Snowblood. As their other band lurched toward the grave, drummer + keyboard/noise-operator Ewan Mackenzie and guitarist + noise-maker David Tobin decided to pare down to basics by crafting longform instrumental doom. After a five-numeraled series of self-recorded explorations and a split album, the band have emerged with Empathy for the Wicked, comprising a pair of 23-minute companion pieces that will have doom fans saying “Oh look! Here comes the Sunn O))).”
Ommadon used their I-V series to improve their self-recording technique, and it shows on Empathy. Tobin’s guitar often sounds like a highly-distorted bass. It whomps and crunches with seismic force, multiplied to behemoth proportions by some witchcraft of amplification and tuning. Mackenzie’s drums and percussion are apropos for the style, with big detailed cymbals, a booming kick drum and distinct, thumping toms. His style is nothing experimental – there are lots of eighth note triplet fills and cymbal crashes on-the-note-change – but his synergy with Tobin makes for an entrancing listen nonetheless.
Eerie ambiance is a big part of the band’s sound as well. Ommadon have gone far beyond cable hum, incorporating steady noise, but keeping it from interfering with the sounds of their actual playing. The ever-present backdrop on “Part One” suggests a metal chamber full of agitated ghosts. In “Part Two,” the interweave of whooshing, feedback and subtle synthesizer essentially becomes the body of the song itself.
So how are the songs, anyway? Simply put, “Part One” kicks ass. It is hypnotic, crushing, dynamic and haunting. It is inaugurated and concluded by prismatic bursts of YOB-like chords and artful feedback, ascendant bookends that provide contour and variance to a middle that is mostly blood and thunder. What is striking and wonderful about “Part One” is how the rawness of it pulls you in, making you feel like you are in the room with Ommadon. Like the best drone-doom, merely listening feels like taking part in a performance, a ritual, an incantation.
Tragically, “Part Two” of Empathy for the Wicked is flawed. Ironically, its fundamental defect springs from Ommadon’s attempt to make it songlike. The first several minutes of “Part Two” are generally ambient. Hear the sound of the void aftermath of the cataclysm that was “Part One” being repopulated by new forms of existence. By the seven-minute mark, the piece achieves a desolate grace reminiscent of The Ballasted Orchestra-era Stars of the Lid. The understated, ephemeral aspect of the soundscape hints at catharsis and eventual understanding, even nirvana.
Alas, there are precious few minutes of this wonder. At about the 10-minute mark, Tobin reintroduces a riff from “Part One.” For some reason, this switchup comes across as both limp and heavy-handed. Mackenzie enters with some thubita-thubita patterns that never quite interlock, and the song ends not with a feeling of cyclical, hypnotic reverie, but rather one of tedious, forced repetition. A gentler gesture would have preserved the more delicate vapors, and there is no telling what could have happened had that path been followed all the way.
Drone-doom has certainly been done and done and done again. However, the criteria that make a drone recording “good” or “bad” are often so subtle, ambiguous and personal that a masterpiece can simply pop up out of nowhere. “Part One” may be one such minor masterpiece. “Part Two” does not quite carry the album to enlightenment, but it could well be a future building block. Ommadon have announced themselves as a formidable doom duo with Empathy for the Wicked, and those ensorcelled by their craft will want to watch them closely from here going forward.