Tuxedomoon has been together forever; they played concerts with Throbbing Gristle and PiL back in the crazy days of post-punk when no one knew what direction music would go next. Tuxedomoon stood out for their wacky instrumentation—playing punk clubs with cellos and horns; classic—and their commitment to finding a new way in the rock wilderness. (Read much more about them in Simon Reynolds’ book Rip It Up and Start Again.)
We haven’t heard a lot from Tuxedomoon in the last few years, but this release (on the awesome Belgian world music label Crammed Discs, which is also rereleasing some of their more fascinating back-catalogue records) begs one question: why not? Sure, it’s weird as all hell: more than an hour of ambient jazz-pop noize, occasionally breaking into brass-band oddness or dark funk.
This isn’t everyone’s cup of decaf herbal green tea. And there are more obstacles as well: A) It’s just about all instrumental, with the only vocal guideposts being field recordings. B) While this music was apparently made to be the soundtrack to a movie by filmmaker George Kakanakis, the movie itself is not included, and it is unclear if it really exists as a film-qua-film, or if the music here is really a soundtrack to it at all. C) The Bardo Hotel is a group construct, apparently representing all hotels, the state of rootless restlessness, the feeling of permanent exile, in the minds of the bandmembers.
Yes, this all sounds pretty pretentious, and Tuxedomoon does not really care how you feel about that. However, if you are brave enough to get past all this, this album is pretty damn good. The textures are constantly shifting between doomy drones and moments of clearwater beauty. The first real “composition” seems to be the second track, “Effervescing in the Nether Sphere”, which rides a minor “Bolero” bass riff so that Luc van Lieshout’s soaring trumpet work can lift us out of the murk. This is one of the few times when a piece seems to stay together—a lot of other songs here seem to fall apart before they have even begun. Sometimes this is a bad thing, but in the Bardo Hotel it makes perfect emotional sense.
The album’s centerpiece is the epic-length “Vulcanic, Combustible”. Here, Blaine Reininger’s violin turns into an entire orchestra blasting out blocky angelic chords, while Peter Principle’s guitar sneaks in to deliver sly commentary. The tension builds until about the nine-minute mark, when a lot of it drops away so that the theme (and, for a change in post-rock music, there really is one here) can be restated on a more intimate level. This piece actually does sound both volcanic and combustible; what it really is is a beautiful piece of modern classical music.
The record’s most interesting section comes right in the middle, when it breaks out into the Balkan-band impression of “Baron Brown”—what makes it so weird is that it seems to be a real song, with actual (if wordless) vocals. Sure, it doesn’t last all that long, but it re-energizes the album before busting into the multi-part choral weirdness of the snippet called “Jinx”. The only orientation is disorientation. And in this universe, it makes perfect sense.
Well, if you’re still reading, you are not afraid of pretention or oddness in music, so you will likely be interested in spending some time in the Bardo Hotel. It’s a fascinating place—but don’t hold your breath waiting for the mint on your pillow.