Even though Omotai is always on the list of Houston's top metal acts, this is the first time I've really had the opportunity to check them out. Seeing as how their live prowess is always shouted from the rooftops, I was curious how that energy translated into their first full-length and oft-delayed album, Terrestrial Grief.
The answer is that it translates mostly as a hard-hitting throat-punch of assaultive noise that frightens and pleases. If a controlled building implosion had Dimebag Darrell melodies woven amongst the falling debris, this is exactly what it would sound like.
You most often hear Omotai compared to Mastodon, and I can definitely hear that. For me, though, Grief sounds much more like a sped-up version of the Pixies. The distortion hides incredibly catchy, almost pop melodies that seem to throb in and out of the all-encompassing rage.
The screams in the songs are not really lyrics, more an extra layer of percussion. That's a little ironic considering that drummer Anthony Vallejo, who may in fact be Houston's best beater, often uses drum fills in ways that follow the melody and add to it rather than simply serving as the rhythm and base.
That's why I feel the Pixies comparison is so apt, even though I'd be the first to admit the two could never be confused. Just because Melissa Lonchambon stays low and dirty doesn't mean she isn't crafting the same timeless lines that Kim Deal was capable of, and guitarist Sam Waters is equally up to the challenge of matching his uber-talented teammates note for note.
Still, to me Terrestrial Grief feels fractured, as if it was one good EP and a collection of tunes that, while great, do not really fit together as the kind of internal narrative necessary for a great record. It doesn't really get groundbreaking until the fifth track "Seabitch." Before that it's above average, yes, but afterwards begins an actual journey.
Part of the greatness of that track is the fact that it features one of not the only guitar solo on the entire endeavor. That comes courtesy of former Pain Teen Scott Ayers.
"He's one of my favorite guitarists ever, so I really wanted to get him to do something on the record," says Waters. "I do some solo work, but I tend to focus more on noise textures. We've just never been a solo-oriented band -- we tend to focus a lot more on attack and riffage."
Nonetheless, Ayers helps edge the album into a more daring and experimental place that boldly goes where otherwise the band seems hesitant. Once the throbbing of his strange, Phillip Glass-ian showcase piece fades we're suddenly thrown into the title track.
It's an ambient, interstellar masterpiece that is something that the Legendary Pink Dots' Edward Ka-Spel would have been proud of crafting. Taken as part of the album as a whole, it's merely breathing space, but if you do as I do and pretend everything starts with "Seabitch," it's the slow drowning after a horrible shipwreck, a dark, beautiful, haunted piece of brilliance.
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Lonchambon conceived the piece after reading a book of old sci-fi stories, Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics. It was originally supposed to be an ending to the opening track, "Vela Hotel," and perhaps that might have helped pull the record together more as a cohesive concept. I prefer it here, telling a tale of space pirates that launches farther away from Earth in the almost progressive follow-up track "Orison."
Most of Side A of Terrestrial Grief consists of solid pieces the band has been playing for a while, while Side B showcases more recent and dynamic work. Taking that as the direction that Omotai is headed, you can count on them becoming Houston's best metal act.
They have the balls to step away from the norm and find avenues of exploration others might be more hesitant to try. Consider Terrestrial Grief the next step towards their masterpiece.
Omotai plays Friday, December 28 at Walters with Odessa and From Beyond.