Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect – as well as giving a brief overview of the music itself. We’ve covered a good number of titles from the venerable Drag City Records over the past couple of weeks and key amongst those have been their two studio LPs from stoner rock greats Om. Although both of those titles hit the shelves around a decade ago, it’s now time to examine a release of theirs that’s rather more recent: 2019’s ‘BBC Radio 1’
It’s hard to think of a recording establishment anywhere in the world quite as storied as the BBC’s Maida Vale studios. A complex of seven high-end studios in affluent central London, it’s no exaggeration to say that a significant portion of modern music’s greatest have taped sessions there in the time since the building opening in 1946. Although deeply respected by their ardent fanbase, it was – perhaps understandably – a surprise for some when American stoner rock titans Om cut a session at Maida Vale’s studio 3 in May 2019. It was a welcome surprise, certainly – but, even so, Om’s heady brand of eastern psychedelics inflected with crushing heaviness cast them as figures to be beloved by the wandering outsider. Their penetration of the British musical establishment’s beating heart might suggest a coup of sorts but it’s a well deserved one if so. Always one of their style’s most articulate bands, Om – who started out in the mid ’00s as a duo but are found on this recording as a three piece – have always produced work at their own particular pace. Even so, this 29 minute set represents the group’s first studio work since 2012’s ‘Advaitic Songs’. Such a wait has only helped to fuel the ready enthusiasm with which this set has been received but, even so, a few may quibble at the lack of new material after such a significant wait. Although understandable to a degree, to gripe too strongly about the absence of new songs would be to miss the point of ‘BBC Radio 1’ entirely. To those with a longstanding familiarity for all things Om, these are old songs given new life: frontman Al Cisneros, drummer Emil Amos and newcomer Tyler Trotter remain faithful enough to the original studio LP versions that the four songs they performed here are still immediately recognisable; but there are also a plentiful raft of subtle adjustment resulting in a significantly different sound from their LP counterparts. Where 2012’s ‘State Of Non-Return’ gained its strength though subtly shifting string parts on ‘Advaitic Songs’, here it gains a guttural, roaring low end far heavier than anything the group have recorded in a decade and a half. For those just beginning to explore Om’s singular body of work, this perhaps isn’t quite as fully-fledged an introduction as ‘Advaitic Songs’ but, even so, there’s a great deal to appeal here to both long-term aficionados and those with only a passing familiarity.
Although Drag City are nothing if not adventurous in terms of their roster of signees, they tend to err on the side of traditionalism when it comes to their vinyl releases. Buying a Drag City record is usually a pleasurably anachronistic experience; by and large colour-vinyl averse, you won’t find anything as new-fangled as a download code or CD included in the package and the records themselves are weighty, well-pressed and cleanly mastered. In an age of 5th anniversary colour vinyl reissues and ten LP boxsets, it’s a refreshingly no-nonsense, rationalistic way of doing business. For their release of ‘BBC Radio 1’, however, they’ve opted to take the road less travelled. This is a very unusually configured release by anyone’s standards; rather than pressing Om’s BBC set to a single 12″ LP as per usual, Drag City have instead opted to spread the set across two 10″ discs. Quite aside from the sumptuous sound quality, this results in a truly arresting presentation. The discs are split colour vinyl – half black, half opaque, green-tinged clear – and have been cut at 33rpm, despite the short side lengths in some cases (particularly side C, which lasts only three and a half minutes). This is an understandable decision, as side A’s eleven minute ‘Gethsemane’ – a standout track from ‘Advaitic Songs’ – is very likely too long to have been successfully cut onto a 10″ disc at 45rpm, even if the other sides might have benefited from such a treatment. Even so, the sound quality has suffered none for this decision and, frankly, this is not only the best sounding Om album ever recorded but also one of the most unreservedly audiophile-grade recordings we’ve ever heard from Drag City. The group rework these songs with the deft nuance of seasoned professionals and the BBC sound team’s engineering and mixing is beyond reproach. The records themselves have been pressed by the Czech Republic’s GZ Media, which is something of a surprise considering that Drag City are a US label who almost always employ the services of the American pressing plant Record Technology Incorporated. This ultimately matters not, however, as the pressing is every bit as impressive as the sonics. Both discs are perfectly flat and the surfaces, too, greatly impress with low noise floors and an admirable lack of surface noise.
Due to their relative scarcity, this is actually the first 10″ release we’ve ever reviewed for Vinyl Corner but, even so, we can say with confidence that this is the most attractively presented release in the format we’ve ever seen. Packaged in a high quality, slickly presented gatefold sleeve, ‘BBC Radio 1’ feels like a full-blown double 12″ LP in miniature; the cover is made from a good, solid cardstock that feels great in hand and the spine is thick and evidently legible, helping it to stand out on a packed shelf – as if the smaller size weren’t enough. As per usual with Drag City releases, the barcode is found as a sticker on the shrinkwrap, which is always a big plus as it leaves the art direction unmolested. In this case, said direction consists of classy, monochromatic photography of the band in action as they record their set. This is carried over to the attractive printed inner sleeves, which are sure to please those with a fetish for vintage gear, as the group’s smorgasbord of instrumentation is captured in all its visually arresting glory. As briefly mentioned earlier, the records are on split colour wax and they look classy and distinctive, especially if held up to the light.
Om’s recent return may not constitute the collection of newly-written material that many have been hoping for, but hopefully that will come in time. 2019’s ‘BBC Radio 1’ is so, so much more than a stopgap release, though; the group sound as alive, engaged and vital here as they ever have done before and they bring a fresh quality to these familiar favourites that make these new BBC recordings as important in their own way as anything to have come before them. The packaging and presentation is sumptuous and the sound quality is every bit as impressive. Om are one of modern music’s most enigmatic, intriguing bands and here they reclaim their spot at the top.
Enjoyed this feature? We’re always looking for further albums to highlight on Vinyl Corner – and if you have a vinyl release that you’d love to see written about here, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org – it would be great to hear from you!