Although Bardo Pond have a reputation for titling their albums with drug references, I’d prefer to think of their fifth album, Dilate, as a reference not to the blissed-out gaze of the lysergically afflicted but to the opening of the birth canal. Why? Because this album sounds to me like the fuzzy halo of a crowning, the birth pangs of something beautiful and strange.
From the beginning, the Philadelphia quintet founded by brothers John and Michael Gibbons sought to achieve transcendence out of an improvisational slurry of sludge and noise. Now, having finally learned to tune their instruments, they have overlaid simple and haunting melodies over the usual intense chaos, creating a sound that, while not for those of short attention span, is certainly their most accessible work to date.
The lead-in track, “Two Planes”, is a good example. It begins with moody bass but is soon joined by an ethereal synth melody and increasing in intensity until the drums kick in against the wall of distortion and drone. Here the song plateaus until one by one the elements drop out again, ending with the same simple melody with which the song began. “Despite the Roar”, appropriately enough, follows a similar structure but is pinned together by an even more unshakable melody, all the more so for its simplicity and repetition. “Aphasia” reverses the formula by giving the melody to the distortion heavy guitar. Don’t ask Bardo Pond to get to the point-the point is the build, the drone, the repetition, the slow development of an idea.
However, a few songs break out of the mold for long enough to give us a glimmer of what this band can do with a little focus—even when stoned out of their everloving gourds. “Sunrise” begins with simple and refreshing acoustic guitar and is quickly joined by haunting vocals from singer and flutist Isobel Sollenberger. Amid the unintelligible murmur of what may be backwards loops, these words emerge: “When your words turn to breath / And silence reigns / And the sky is falling / Then it is golden / Watching it happen.” The vocal quality is just as lovely and impressionistic as the lyrics, making the old fashioned emo guitar solo that follows all the more powerful and startling.
Most impressive in this vein was the upbeat “Inside”, probably the only uptempo song on the album. It features a lovely little strummy guitar almost worthy of Liz Phair’s simple hooks on Exile in Guyville and the words, addressed “to those who came all this way”, speak of something “opening up inside”.
This isn’t yet a rock record, but something is indeed opening from the inside and reaching out to make a bit of melodic order from the chaos. I imagine that large quantities of grass would make Dilate the perfect trance out number. Sober, however, I sometimes found myself a little bored, and wished more than a few times that every song didn’t have to build to a wall of noise. The head’s already crowning, though—just a few more centimeters of dilation and in another album Bardo Pond may give birth to a healthy, wailing new sound.