In the week My Bloody Valentine resurfaced on stage, waving or drowning in a rip tide of feedback, you might conclude there is something in the air. With a fortuitous timing Bardo Pond have also chosen to release their last-but-one album, Ticket Crystals. First out in 2006, it bears certain resemblances to the MBV sound, but influences are a starting point rather than a destination for Bardo Pond.
The Philadelphia five-some have been around since the mid-90s, developing a complex, fascinating, psychedelic sound and an impressive underground reputation. Proof that they have a quality fan base came last year when Alexander Tucker wrote included an entire song about them, ‘Sitting in a Bardo Pond’, on his quiet masterpiece Third Mouth. The song represented them as a portal to a parallel reality, a fair assessment of their mission. Ticket Crystals is an immersive, drug-fuelled album that intrudes on reality and alters it without asking permission.
It is always good to set out your stall with the first track on an album, to make a statement. ‘Destroying Angel’, an uncompromising title for a song, grabs the listener by the hair and drags them under. It begins with some misleadingly gentle acoustic guitar, quickly joined by a wall of low frequency twin guitar grind. This is familiar Bardo Pond territory, and they do it exceptionally well. In comparison to more recent bands such as Wooden Shjips, their brand of swirling, kosmiche guitar rock is almost playful. Unlike Shjips, who will not let anything distract them from the groove, Bardo Pond have time for improvised, near-jazz riffs that sweep across the heaving maelstrom. However, there are pastoral elements to the music as well, hinting heavily (in both senses) at Led Zeppelin and rotating around Isobel Sollenberger’s all-purpose psych-rock vocals (“Sweet dreams, straying to the sun” etc.).
Having opened up rifts in multiple time-space continua, the band start to frolic in the resulting space. ‘Isle’ is flute-driven, the guitar rumble more distant and subterranean, occasionally bursting through Sollenberger’s ecstatic singing, which is about constellations and stars. Its flutey-ness, and the reappearance of flute (also Sollenberger) throughout Ticket Crystals, seemed to offend reviewers when first released, apparently on the basis that flutes are ‘prog’. In fact, Bardo Pond’s use of the flute is effective and original, giving new life to a misunderstood instrument. Like ‘Destroying Angel’, ‘Isle’ is 10 minutes of powerfully balanced band dynamics, with a delightful false ending involving a lone guitar, squealing in ecstasy.
The centre of the album is three shorter tracks. ‘Lost Word’ deconstructs the mix into layers of multi-tracked vocals, bells, guitar lines and flute, entering the domain of Bardo Pond favourites the Sun Ra Arkestra, and delivering a layered, complex soundscape. ‘Cry Baby Cry’, by contrast, is a surprise: a cover of perhaps the most overlooked and trippiest of the Beatles’ White Album tracks. It’s a neat selection, but covering Beatles’ songs always seems a fairly pointless exercise, unless you plan to seriously mess around with them.’ ‘Endurance’ resumes normal service, a pulsing track about an endless walk.
‘FCII’ is where Bardo Pond conquer their peak, with 18 minutes of extremely spaced out music. We are deep in space, innumerable light years from home. The engines are fluttering in and out of life, the ship is drifting, but the stars flicker and gleam while colours whirl and snake in the black void. This is clearly the track Bardo Pond enjoyed the most, and it is peerless stuff, a vast, high, open soundscape.
It is hard to follow a track that fits the band like a glove, but Ticket Crystals offers up two 11min 11secs closers. ‘Moonshine’ has a gentle, unworldly melody and lyrics to match (lyrics are not really Bardo Pond’s strong point, or indeed the point of their music). Muscular guitar lines give way to washes of reverb and feedback, although perhaps with less impact that similar tracks than earlier in the album. Finally, ‘Montana Sacra II’ is an improvised soundtrack segment to part of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s famed cult film The Holy Mountain. Although highly atmospheric, with dialogue playing in the background, it would undoubtedly work a lot alongside the film for which it was recorded.
Ticket Crystals, despite a couple of weak spots, is a powerful album that has gained in status and influence since it first came out. Any record that can make your vision wobble through sheer intensity of sound deserves respect. For anyone who likes exotic improvisation, disconcerting volume levels and mind-altering aural assault from seriously good musicians who like to get high and stay high, this is for you.