After 20 years of slow droney psychedelics, Bardo Pond has chosen to name its new album simply, after itself: Bardo Pond. And if that name means anything to you, then you know what to expect. Perhaps the band self-titled the album in order to recognize that, at this point, it is an institution, a sound, a known quantity. Though this is the first release on Fire Records, that’s really the only thing new about this album, which finds the band spacing out in its normal manner.
Bardo Pond is known for its drug referencing titles. But the band has done so much for simulating the trip experience perhaps “Bardo Pond” has become a drug reference in its own right. The approach on this album is the same as usual: the Gibbons brothers find a good dual guitar riff—one playing a lead, one texturing underneath—and repeat for at least five minutes over Jason Kourkounis’s shuffling and heavy drums, Clint Takeda’s rumbling bass, and Isobel Sollenberger’s moaning vocals (or sometimes silly flute).
It’s not a bad album, but it’s also not the band’s best. The energy of earlier efforts, like the stellar Amanita seems absent. However, Bardo Pond always has a strange energy. What they do so well is make psychedelic drone catchy: the riff that repeats and bowls you over into a contagiously hazy state. If anything, the songs on the new album have less catchy riffs, and thus have a harder time snagging you for the drone. This could be due to the fact that only one of these songs is less than seven minutes.
Bardo Pond typically plays long songs, but the trend seems to be going in the direction of longer and freer jam sessions, like the multivolume self-released CDRs the band has put out over the last few years. The centerpiece of this album, then, is a twenty-one minute long song, “Undone”, and let’s just say that center cannot hold. This song just doesn’t quite cut it. The main issue is that way up front in the mix is a repetitive high-pitched guitar playing notes backwards that doesn’t really do anything interesting except perhaps that it starts to sound like a dying elephant.
Now it’s okay for a jam to take it’s time, but on this track the band doesn’t hit its stride until the halfway mark—and by then it’s too late. At that point, the drums find a more steady beat, rather than a rolling thunder; the vocals get louder, yet still not above a tired moan; and the “rhythm” guitar grows in the mix, rounding out the sound. The lead guitar thickens into a wah-wah wall: this is what Bardo Pond does well.
At least the band knew to follow this track with the most thrilling one on the album: “Cracker Wrist”, which has a needly and paranoid riff that repeats for five minutes, growing in intensity. Then the song stops and regroups as an imperial, heavy, break down, with Isobel wailing over everything like a more messed up Grace Slick. What lacked on “Undone”, that inner necessity that makes droney music addictive, is in full force here.
Bardo Pond’s psychedelics may produce a contact high, but it all depends on the right mix of song and free form repetition. Maybe droning past the 11-minute mark is too much; there’s a point beyond which a new chord or some unexpected notes and melodies might reinvigorate the sound. Bardo Pond isn’t innovative; the improvisation is tightly reined, not free, and ultimately not so interesting. The interest lays in the repetition, which still must be compelling.
Bardo Pond’s songs have a simple one-part structure upon which they slab layers of fuzz and heaviness so that what begins as a catchy song, lulls you into a hallucinogenic sleep. Bardo Pond has a good amount of acoustic elements, which lighten up the touch a little bit and even bring out an Americana influence. This lighter sound may account for the more tired feel of this album, but there are still some compelling rockers, like “Dont Know About You,” which manages to march in a Sabbath-y way beat by beat, despite sounding like its falling down on its feet. In the end, this album’s highs are mostly flashbacks. The repetition in a song is one thing; but from album to album, it gets a little boring. I want a new drug.