By Jeremy Hallock
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By Observer Staff
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Play Alpha Centauri and O2 back to back, and the sonic similarities are hard to miss: the sweeping synths, the primal drumming, the flutes. What is really important, however, is the fact that both bands search for inspiration at higher planes, approaching music as a means of transcending the ordinary, dipping into sound and decoding its primal origins, eventually creating that magic intangible that is cosmic music.
By design or even by accident, bands like Amon Duul I&II, Ash Ra Tempel, Cosmic Jokers, Popol Vuh, and Faust (among others) took rock and lifted it to new levels of wigged-out, transcendental brain bliss until they evoked--and even reached--the sacred. Ohm operates within the same parameters and communicates similar feelings.
If today's rock music has reached a nadir of crass commercialism and downright banality, the existence of bands like Ohm is an absolute necessity. Unlike most of their contemporaries--staring into the gutter for inspiration--Ohm looks to the stars. Like the army of Krautrockers that influenced their inception, Ohm escapes the narrow confines of rock 'n' roll and explodes into a space without chronological or topological references.
Sitting in producer Matt Castille's living room, the members of Ohm smile at the inevitable and dreaded mention of "space rock." The truth is that keyboardist Doug Ferguson and percussionist Sam Forest Ward got together two and a half years ago, long before the catch phrase started rolling around tongues like exotic candy. What they wanted to achieve then and do now--with the addition of Nathan Brown (bass, drums) and Chris Forrest (bass clarinet)--is experimental music that crosses genres and time frames and challenges audiences. What Ward calls "folk modern industrial" is still too narrow a definition for Ohm: It's not folk because most folks don't get it, and it's not industrial since it doesn't sound mechanical or repetitious; all bandmembers agree that cosmic rock or space rock is more encompassing.
At a recent show at the Argo in Denton, the musicians set up in the four corners of the room and started playing. The crowd--surrounded by music--didn't know from where the music was coming; with the traditional stage setup and standard acoustics eliminated, so too was the separation between audience and performer. The music was all improvised, keeping true to the band's idea of 'no two shows should be alike.' "We just decided to get into what John Cage called 'chance operations.' You can never have the same group of people doing the same thing twice," Ward says. "Quite a few people laid down in the center of the floor and closed their eyes, experiencing what is called quad-fi. Others moved around, getting closer to whatever player they chose, experiencing sound from different angles."
Other members of the audience were just confused. Ohm's music mystified or estranged those who had no previous experience with experimental groups. "A guy came to me after the show and said 'The last time I saw a bass clarinet was in high school.' For a rock band to use bass clarinet and do it on a mature level is rather unusual," Forrest says. Ward interjects: "We're also one of the few bands in the metroplex that don't have a guitar player in our lineup."
"Someone came up to me and said he didn't know if we're good or bad, but he liked the show," Brown says with amusement.
"Someone shouted 'Get off the drugs!'" Forrest adds. "The truth is, we don't do drugs. We're drug-free." Psychedelic music and cosmic rock were indeed partially aided by experimentation with LSD. In fact, the late acid guru Timothy Leary recorded an album with Ash Ra Tempel (Seven Up), and his name has popped up on many record sleeves. Yet the roots of cosmic rock run much deeper, having more to do with the search for meaning or knowledge: of our origins, our final destination, our purpose; what Julian Cope in his book Krautrocksampler calls the "Explore-the-god-in-you-by-working-the-animal-in-you Gnostic Odyssey."
For Ferguson the music is a form of psychic healing. According to Castille, Ferguson experienced serious psychological distress--so severe that at one point, he decided to scrap the whole project and disband Ohm--during the album's final mix. At the same time, Brown moved to Eugene, Oregon. Miraculously, the finished album was so astonishing that it gave the band the kiss of life. Ferguson reconsidered, and Brown came back to Texas, both determined to make the project work.
"Music is a spiritual thing to me," Ferguson says. "It helps keep my sanity. I play music to heal. It is music to escape and think things through. Someone gave a definition of psychedelic music, and I wholeheartedly agree with it. He said that psychedelic music takes the negative aspects of life and transcends them."