[24 April 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The tale of how Bloody Panda came to be is the kind of background story that intrigues indie scenesters, and compels metal devotees to roll their eyes. Yoshiko Ohara, an established visual artist based in Osaka, Japan, decided to spend her savings on a trip to New York City, brand new recording equipment in tow, with the idea that she’d move to America to make music, this despite the unfortunate fact that she didn’t know how to play an instrument of any kind. She posted advertisements for band members, and one such ad caught the attention of trio Josh Rothenberger (guitar), Bryan Camphire (bass), and Blake McDowell (organ), who responded and subsequently joined Ohara’s bold project, ultimately rounded out by drummer Dan Weiss.
Over the course of 2005 and 2006, the quintet started to generate buzz around the city, especially among the indie set, who began to stumble across Bloody Panda opening for such diverse acts as Akron/Family, Genghis Tron, and Mouth of the Architect, expressing awe at the sight and sound of a diminutive, pretty Japanese woman chanting and screaming in front of four imposing dudes sporting executioner’s masks. Effusive praise on music blogs soon followed, word of mouth building steadily. The band shared a split CD with experimental band Kayo Dot in early 2007, they provided a brilliant cover of Eyehategod’s “Anxiety Hangover” for the recent Eyehategod tribute album For the Sick, and before you knew it, the debut album by the enigmatic metal band with the indie rock name had become one of the most eagerly anticipated extreme records of the first half of 2007.
Before you devout headbangers in the crowd start up with your, “Death to false metal!” war cry, though, you might want to hold off on the derision until after you’ve heard Pheromone. The band might seem to exude artsy pretentiousness, right down to the funeral doom arrangements, which couldn’t be any more trendy right now (thanks to such indie cred-bearing bands as Sunn O))), Boris, and Earth), but the way Bloody Panda combines visceral power with aching beauty and devastating emotion is a marvel. Produced by Jason Marcucci, who has previously worked with the Flaming Lips and the White Stripes, Pheromone is imposing, but like Battle of Mice and Made Out of Babies, both of which boast the extraordinary vocal talent of Julie Christmas, Ohara lends Bloody Panda an air of accessibility most male doom growlers are completely incapable of.
Consisting of just four songs, the fact that the tracks are lengthy is par for the course, but what is surprising is Pheromone‘s sense of economy, its 39-minute running time a far cry from most doom records, which tend to meander well past the hour mark. The band makes full use of the time, too, each track continuing to haunt us well after we’ve stopped listening. Singing in both English and Japanese, Ohara could be singing in Esperanto for all we care, as her melodic chants are often difficult to discern, but despite the fact that her lyrics to possess a poetic quality, Pheromone is more about mood than message, her vocals every bit as entrancing as the arrangement behind her.
Opening track “Untitled” skillfully combines the brutal with the entrancing, Ohara sounding elegiac as the rest of the band launches into a crushing array of distorted riffs, droning organ, and cacophonous cymbal crashes, but the bottom quickly falls out midway through, the tender bridge segueing into something slightly more urgent (almost tetchy), highlighted by Weiss’s masterful drum fills. “Coma”, like Boris, is heavily influenced by the mighty riffs of the Melvins and St. Vitus, slow yet insistent, visceral crunch giving way to pensive spaciousness, ungodly drones entering the fray six minutes in, sounding like the roar of an unknown beast inside a dark cavern, as Ohara repeats the highly enigmatic refrain like a mantra: “You are like a wet newspaper.” “Fever” shifts from the evil tones of Khanate to the more mystical strains of Dead Can Dance before coming closest to anything resembling a rousing conclusion on the entire album.
Ohara channels the haunting, detached tone of Nico on the 12-plus-minute “Ice”, gradually building to a multi-tracked, hair-raising scream three and a half minutes in, resembling Julie Christmas at her most feral, capping off a startling debut full-length full of so many harrowing twists and turns, we’re left both unsettled and awestruck. Metal fans, you’re looking at one of the finest doom albums to come out in recent memory. Indie fans, if you dig this, welcome, you’ve officially crossed over to the dark side for good.