Released 2007 on Important Records
Reviewed by Rust Phimister, 20/12/2008ce
Nowadays, in lieu of truly transcendant rock (not that this is going to be a nostalgia piece. After all, previous decades gave us the Bay City Rollers and Showaddywaddy), we're subjected to album after album of mostly bland, lyrically unadventurous tripe by The Killers, Kings of Leon and Kaiser Chiefs. Nothing intrinsically wrong with those guys, I guess (the first Killers albums is a gem), but nothing special either, yet we are regularly treated to swathes of hyperbole and drivveling praise about said bands in Britain's once-great music press. And I won't even get started on Amy Winehouse...
The fact is that modern mainstream pop and rock music increasingly resembles a decrepit, influenza-riddled old man, whose occasional flashes of brilliance (Arcade Fire's flawed but interesting debut, M83, Ladytron, Sigur Ros) are not so much par for the course but rather infrequent consumptive gasps for rapidly-decreasing air. To paraphrase David Bowie circa 1977, "music has become a disgusting toothless old lady", with very little of the life-affirming quality it should have. Not so much music as muzak.
In such dire and dull circumstances, it's nice to know Bardo Pond are out there. The Philadelphia heavy psych masters have been plugging away in the shadows since the early 90s, taking a bludgeoning Krautrock groove but filtering it through the influence of punk, grunge and shoegaze to leave us some of the most heroic and righteous rock this side of Japan.
Baikal is one of their many side projects (flautist and singer Isobel Sollenberger is missing, leaving guitarist brothers John and Michael Gibbons, bassist Clint Takeda, synth player Alan Igler and drummer Jason Kourkonis). In the past, they've also recorded a couple of stunning albums with Roy Montgomery as Hash Jar Tempo and did splits with guitarist Tom Carter and even Mogwai. Nearly everything they do is brilliant. Slow, heavy, druggy and hypnotic, Bardo Pond's music is the stuff I live for. It's like heroin. Which is probably the effect they're looking for.
At first listen, Baikal doesn't seem massively different. It's psychedelic, but with a bit of grunge and lashings of shoegazery guitar saturation and fuzzed-out bass. But it's also heavy. Heavy, heavy, heavy. Much heavier than anything these guys have done before. Don't mean to go on, but this motherfucker is heavy! It seems Kourkonis, Takeda and the Gibbons brothers have been worshipping at the altar of some of rock's most gloriously heathen demi-Gods. Think Vincebus Eruptum-era Blue Cheer, the electric guitar overloads of Ash Ra Tempel's "Amboss" or early Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But heavier even than all of those. And longer. There are only two tracks, yet the album lasts more than an hour! You do the math. More than anything else, Baikal is influenced by those Japanese psych-freak outlaws, Acid Mothers Temple, even down to the Japanese words that Takeda spits out, Damo Suzuki-like, throughout the 36-odd minutes of opener "I Forgot" (interspersed with some English).
"I Forgot" is a slow-burner. Fuck, at nearly 40 minutes, it'd have to be. This is not Comets on Fire heavy psych. This is pulled from a deep, dark, growling well, ancient and formidable. The cover art featuring a skeleton in shamanic garb tells it all. This is truly pagan rock, the stuff Julian Cope writes about with such glee. It feels, for all it's crackling electricity and volume, like something ancient, primordial. It starts quietly, a smattering of drums, a low bass riff, some guitar noodling that segues in and out. But before long, the volume starts to clamber, Takeda begins his stoned incantations and Kourkonis and the Gibbons brothers start to unleash some of the most righteous arcane noise you'll ever hear. The guitars scissor and shoot aroung each other. Whilst one of the brothers keeps up a marathon of unfettered soloing, channeling the twins spirits of Manuel Göttsching and Tony McPhee, the other bursts in and out of the mix, spurting out some random saturated guitar noise, as if trying to use his guitar to duet with the equally spasmodic Takeda. The whole piece continues like this, a contantly shifting, growling, incandescant miasma of noise, rythm and beauty. Never dull, always surprising. Oh, and did I mention heavy??
The next track, "Hanafuda" was probably never going to match the intensity of "I Forgot". It does bring synths (courtesy of Igler) and extra percussion, showing more of an affinity therefore with Amon Düül II (to keep with the Krautrock references) than Ash Ra Tempel, but still keeping with the Acid Mothers Temple freakout vibe throughout. It's messy and almost jazzy, at times as elegiacally beautiful, haunting and mystical as its predecessor, but at others getting too experimental and freeform to really keep channeling the shamanistic spirit in quite the same way. But it does show just how good these guys really are. Kourkonis is a revelation throughout this album. He can do hard'n'loud. But he is also sensitive, propelling the tracks with heavy jazz grooves and shifting patterns, before hitting some Klaus Schulze octopus drumming, keeping the other three on their improvisational toes.
Like I said, this is the kind of music I'm most used to hearing from Japanese bands. Not just Acid Mothers Temple (although I do see Baikal as a slower, more Native American twin of the Mothers' recent tantric freakout metal opus Recurring Dream and Apocalypse of Darkness), but also Mainliner, Fushitsusha or Les Rallizes Dénudés. That's the company these guys, whether as Baikal or Bardo Pond, keep. And to return to my opening rant, it's nice to know that an album as dark, heathen, uncompromising and transcendant as Baikal is out there (special thanks to the excellent Important Records label. I owe them, and other labels such as Hydra Head, Southern Lord, Kranky, Fargo and Sub Pop a debt of grattitude for the level of quality they tirelessly put out despite menial exposure and probably cash). It's a comfort to know that such guys will keep ploughing that furrow, and that I can turn to them when the current mire gets me down. Can I get an Amen?
And here's some irony - "Amen" is the title of one of Bardo Pond's greatest tracks! Must be a sign...