They Called Their Band Omicron. Now They're Sharing the Name With a Covid Variant

Since his old metal band broke up five years ago, guitarist Li Heng Chan hadn’t given the project much thought. But last week, he began receiving texts and emails from family, friends, and one of his former bandmates. “They were saying, ‘Your band is in the news!’ ” Chan says. “Everyone’s like, ‘What’s going on?’ ”

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to the stage … Omicron!

On Nov. 26, the World Health Organization announced the name of the latest Covid-19 variant. Although it was chosen for being the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, the designation struck a chord with at least one musician, drummer Jon Wurster of Superchunk, Bob Mould, and Mountain Goats renown: “Omicron sounds like a progressive metal band that’s never headlined,” he tweeted two days later.

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It turns out Wurster wasn’t far off. Between 2014 and 2016, Omicron was indeed the name of an underground prog-metal band based in Hong Kong. The quartet — Chan, keyboardist Tyler Yeung, drummer Alex Bedwell, and synth-guitarist Adam Robertshaw — only played a handful of gigs and weren’t around long enough to release an album (more on that later). But thanks to a macabre coincidence, Omicron are suddenly getting some of the attention they missed out on during their existence. “Of all the possible words you could use for designating a virus, you choose Omicron,” says Chan with a laugh. “Whether for the right or wrong reasons, we’ve been getting clicks. It’s been a lot to process.”

“I have honestly never heard progressive metal, as far as I know, but it’s a term I’ve heard [the Mountain Goats’] John Darnielle use a few times,” Wurster tells Rolling Stone. “It just seemed reasonable, at least in my mind, that there could, or should be, a progressive metal band called Omicron.”

Omicron started coming together nearly a decade ago. After initially immersing himself in Linkin Park, Papa Roach, and other nu-metal faves, the Hong Kong–born Chan branched out and began exploring everything from Slipknot to Helloween. But when he heard “Acid Rain” by Liquid Tension Experiment — an offshoot of modern proggers Dream Theater — Chan began dedicating himself to knotty instrumental music.

With Yeung, a friend from high school and college, and Bedwell, who played in various Hong Kong outfits, the group formed in 2012 before adding Robertshaw (whose synth guitar allowed him to play both rhythm and bass lines) the following year. When it came time to choose a name, Chan says they wanted something that sounded “cosmic-themed.” Andromeda was taken, so at Robertshaw’s suggestion, they went with the next viable-sounding choice, the name for the 15th star in a constellation. “It had this particular ring to it,” Chan says of Omicron. “That was the starting point. And then we looked deeper into the word itself. Our music is loosely based on a sci-fi/space approach, and Omicron means ‘small.’ The idea was that our individual parts — the Omicron — contribute to the bigger picture.”

Playing bills with folk and EDM acts, Omicron stood apart with their twisty, intricate tunes and covers of songs by extreme-metal acts Edge of Sanity and Atheist. “There are a lot of instrumental progressive bands, but as far as Hong Kong, we were the only one,” Chan says. But they only worked sporadically, since the band members had other jobs (Chan was a secondary school teacher; Robertshaw was a store-developer architect for H&M). They could only rehearse one day a week, and played a total of seven club shows in Hong Kong, although one reviewer called them “surely one of the brightest flames in Hong Kong’s metal scene.”

 

When Bedwell decided to return to his home in the U.K., Omicron played its final show in 2016. Chan relocated with his future wife to Perth, Australia, where he began teaching music in a secondary school and started a one-man-band side project, Outcome Variables. “We could’ve done more,” Chan says of Omicron. “We could have been more organized about it at the time. There was a lot of potential, and there were recordings.”

Here’s where the Omicron story takes another twist. The four members are now spread around the globe, with Yeung still in Hong Kong, Robertshaw in the U.K., and Bedwell now in Denmark. But starting last year, they began collecting the studio recordings they’d left behind — spruced up with newly added parts — for a belated, self-titled album. “I’m very psyched,” Chan says. “There were limitations to what we could do live, with just the four of us. But with the album we’re looking to make it sound massive.”

Before last week, the album was being scheduled for release next summer, but Chan says Omicron is grappling with re-emerging in this current climate. “We were thinking, ‘Should we capitalize on this? Is it too soon? Is it in bad taste?’ ” Chan says. “Obviously the virus isn’t a positive thing, but it’s generated some traffic for us.” At the very least, he says, they’re considering tweaking the band name and calling themselves Omicron 2014, after the year the quartet coalesced. “We don’t want people thinking we’re basing it off Covid,” Chan says. “That’s not what we’re about.”

Reunion shows, however, may be more challenging. “The demand would have to be big enough for all four of us to make the trek halfway across the world to play,” says Chan. “If we met somewhere in the middle, like Russia or Mongolia, we’ll consider it.”

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