The members of Philadelphia’s Bardo Pond have spent the past fifteen years perfecting their brand of free-floating narcoleptic heavy-psych, and Ticket Crystals is the band’s latest journey into the pulsating center of the eternal riff. The record will probably not expand Bardo Pond’s fan base, which can crudely be broken down into two factions: stoner dudes and Wire-reading onanists. This is unfortunate but unsurprising, for Bardo Pond’s music embodies the character of Philadelphia in that it is too uncompromising and rough around the edges to gain the widespread recognition for greatness that it probably deserves.
Hailing from Philadelphia myself, I’ve long been familiar with Bardo Pond, having first come across the band in 1995. Along with Dirty Three, Bardo Pond opened one of the first concerts I ever attended: Sonic Youth at the Electric Factory. I was still in high school and unfamiliar with the concept of “drug music,” so Bardo Pond didn’t make much of a dent in my musical consciousness. But the mere fact I saw the band live caused me to pick up its Dragonfly seven-inch shortly thereafter. The music on that tiny slab of vinyl was recorded on October 15, 1993, the day before the start of the World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Phillies went on to the lose that series, victims of Joe Carter’s walk-off home run in Game 6. Since then, the team has been mired in mediocrity. Bardo Pond, meanwhile, built up a solid following by touring with the likes of Mogwai, Dinosaur Jr. and Godspeed You Black Emperor, and by putting out records on esteemed labels such as Matador and, currently, All Tomorrow’s Parties.
There is a common denominator between the Phillies and Bardo Pond: neither is destined to play for large audiences anytime soon. I’ll refrain from an analysis of the Phillies’ shortcomings, but in Bardo Pond’s case the reason is simple — the members go where the music takes them, with little regard for its marketability.
Evidence of this is all over Ticket Crystals, an expansive mind-fuck of a record that crams as much music onto a compact disc as the technology will allow. From monolithic dirges to improvisational drone workouts to above-the-clouds skiddle-dee-dee, Bardo Pond covers all the bases on this, its sixth full-length.
Opener “Destroying Angel” is the heaviest and most overtly “rock” song on the album. Guitarist/flautist Isobel Sollenberger wails over a crushingly heavy, endlessly repeating classic-rock riff. “Flautist” isn’t a joke, either; the cutest of all woodwind family instruments is a prominent component of Bardo Pond’s musical arsenal. But Jethro Tull this is not — on “Isle,” for instance, the band builds up a wall of sound around what was originally a simple guitar line, with the free-floating flute serving as the song’s all-seeing eye, the calm overtop the storm.
And, sure, sometimes Bardo Pond can cross the line from “transcendent” into “self-indulgent” and “annoying.” “Lost Word,” a multi-tracked experiment in vocal manipulation, is shrill and off-putting, and the eighteen-minute, violin-dominated “FC II” fails to justify its epic length.
Ticket Crystals most accessible track is, perhaps not surprisingly, one that the band did not write. It’s a cover of the Beatles “Cry Baby Cry,” and for the song’s first three minutes the band plays it pretty straight. Then, after a brief pause, a torrential wall of feedback is released, and Bardo Pond ends the cut by burying the song’s endearing melody in an avalanche of sound.
Now, a move like that could be seen as alienating and self-defeating. But, for Bardo Pond it’s a statement of purpose.