If the walking dead could dance, this is the music they would dance to.
What a great record this is. Philadelphia’s Bardo Pond bring a molten mix of heavily distorted guitars and sludgy bass, swirl it with some tremulous, evocative vocals courtesy of frontwoman Isobel Sollenberger, then throw in a few bits of flute or violin for extra ambience and shake it all together. Tempos tend to be leaden, but this is far from doom metal -- or any kind of metal. Bardo Pond comes off more like a somnambulant folk rock on acid, with the volume turned to 11 and the whole band stoned on cough syrup. It’s loud and awesome and unlike anything else you’re likely to hear this year, but avoid listening to it while operating heavy machinery, or you’re likely to wind up in a ditch somewhere.
Opening track “Kali Yuga Blues” features a fuzzy guitar line sounding something like Crazy Horse at its overdriven best, but without the forward-charging tempo that Neil Young’s band generally brings to the table. The rhythm shuffles forward, breaks off, hesitates, starts again, takes a detour for a while… all while Sollenberger’s wistful croon meanders in and out of the mix, making vague promises that “I think it’s gonna be different this time." I have no idea what this song is about, and it really doesn't matter: the band and vocalist gel perfectly, and the fact that the tune evokes almost uncontrollable waves of sadness is a testament to the singer’s abilities to make a great deal out of very little. At seven-and-a-half minutes, there’s plenty of room for the song to breathe and flow and run its course. When the flutes roll in at around the five-minute mark, contrasting with and complementing the insect-buzz guitar leads, it’s both surprising and utterly fitting. The whole thing is one of the best tunes of the year.
Happily, brilliant as this opening is, the rest of the album is able to hold its own, and a good thing too: with only five tracks ranging from five to 11 minutes, there’s no room for filler. “Taste” and “Fir” both expand on the template set by the opening track, but an even bigger standout is “Chance”. The penultimate tune here, “Chance” is noticeable for its acoustic guitar opening on an album which is otherwise unapologetically plugged in from start to finish, as well as its lack of vocals. As it happens, that acoustic picking is soon subsumed under layers of other sounds, including those Crazy Horse-ish guitars and a wistful flute air, but so engaging is the instrumental work that a listener might not even notice the lack of vocals the first few times around.
This is followed by the album’s final track, another 10-minute-plus number called “Before the Moon”, which brings the album full circle: processed vocals (featuring, I think, tape loops or reverse echo or something of the sort) and lots of straightforward, noisy guitar jamming over a tempo that always sounds on the verge of collapsing under its own weight. If the walking dead could dance, this is the music they would dance to.
Anyone interested in the future of rock and roll -- or, hell, its present -- should run out right now and listen to this album. People have been proclaiming the death of rock for quite some time, including in the pages of this very magazine, but Bardo Pond jams a joyous middle finger at such gloomy assertions. Rock and roll isn’t dead; it’s just morphing into something less familiar, something darker and more beautiful and strange.