BARDO POND: AMANITA (1996)
1) Limerick; 2) Sentence; 3) Tantric Porno; 4) Wank; 5) The High Frequency; 6) Sometimes Words; 7) Yellow Turban; 8) Rumination; 9) Be A Fish; 10) Tapir Song; 11) RM.
Regardless of whether the actual formula of Bufo Alvarius was a «winner» or a «crapfest», one thing is clear: whatever be, they shouldn't have changed it — this way, at the very least you can say that they «definitely got something», but suppose a shift from monotonous, half-improvised psychedelic jamming to standard-length pop songs took place? would they have survived it? what if nobody in the band had a knack for pop hooks? what if they'd only end up embarrassing themselves? selling out for nothing?.. Nah, just ain't worth it.
So all the formal changes are strictly cosmetic. The album title now refers to mushrooms rather than toads (fortunately, there is still a huge generic stock of toxic organisms in store for the future — and remember, this is not an invitation to start munching on death caps); the tracks no longer include any half-hour incantations, spreading their moods more equally throughout the album (which does not mean a shorter running time, though); most importantly, production values have risen, with the band sounding a little more «clean» when they want to sound more clean, and with a better control on reverb, echo, and other effects.
In other words, Amanita is a minor technical improvement on Bufo Alvarius, and for quite a few of the fans, remains the definitive Bardo Pond statement. I have no idea — choosing one B.P. album over another requires unwrapping one too many cerebral DNA strands — but, obviously, this is anything but a letdown. The Bardos' formula is simple, does not pretend to much, and will not be loved by many, but they care about it, and sometimes it works even for me.
One thing that does not always agree well with these guys is noise and distortion. For my tastes, ʽLimerickʼ, opening the album in this scratchy/hoarse mode, should have fulfilled the quotas on distortion — for five minutes, they are capable of upholding a steady crescendo, with two guitar parts, the rhythm section, and Isobel's incomprehensible, echo-laden vocals gradually piled up on top of each other; later still, a third guitar enters the picture with high-pitched «ambient soloing» to announce the beginning of the completion of the circle. It is a hell of a disturbing introduction, but it already makes the second song, ʽSentenceʼ, seem rather anti-climactic — another ode to distortion whose planning and execution seem like a mere shadow of their predecessor.
As before, Bardo Pond are really at their finest when they set up a dumb, behemothic hook — it always helps to have some solid Arbor Mundi tree-trunk to lean upon when drifting around in psychedelic haze. For instance, ʽWankʼ (yes, that is the title — self-irony? unbelievable!) has one of those reliable riffs, shaped like the sonic wave from a skull drill, eating into your brain so ferociously that I found myself actually grappling my cranium at some point. When it's just noise, it never works so well — the brain circuits have to be irritated with subtlety, or they simply shut themselves down and the game is lost altogether.
But the major winner is probably ʽRuminationʼ, where the noise dissipates altogether and the entire song is dominated by echoing slide guitars — the kind of thing that Dave Gilmour probably pionerred, yet here it is taken to one of the possible extremes. The first minute, with the reverberating / wobbling bass intro chords, the shy acoustic guitar coyly joining in, and then the first airborne slide notes, has that simplistic, homebrewn, and still unfathomable mysticism to it that bad / generic bands are usually unable to conjure. Later on, the slide guitar will go crazy (watch out for it), but in the end, loyally obeying the formula, things will calm down again and get to where it all started to «let you down easy».
Only one track out of eleven has a relatively «song-ly» form — ʽBe A Fishʼ, not a particular highlight but still more than simply a generic alt-rock composition (at the very least, Isobel's multi-tracked mantra of "I'd like to smell like a fish / When I go swimming in the soupy mix" is evocative, you'll have to admit that). Everything else represents either typical «Bardo Pond rock» (noisy, angry, stoned, super-slow) or, more rarely, «Bardo Pond balladry» (quiet, moody, stoned, super-slow — apart from ʽRuminationʼ, ʽTantric Pornoʼ also falls in that category), and further attempts at description are futile.
Thumbs up for raising the bar a little bit on perfection (something of the caliber of ʽRuminationʼ was still impossible on Bufo), but, naturally, do keep in mind that, according to my humble opinion, seventy minutes of this stuff are only listenable either in «background mode» (to what sort of activities — that one you will have to decide for yourself), or on one of those trips suggested by the album title. Serious intellectual analysis of the differences between ʽSentenceʼ, ʽYellow Turbanʼ, and ʽTapir Songʼ should be reserved for neural scientists — or neuro patients.