Bardo Pond

  • Bardo Pond
  • Big Laughing Jym (Compulsiv) 1995 
  • Bufo Alvarius, Amen 29:15 (Drunken Fish) 1995 
  • Amanita (Drunken Fish/Matador) 1996 

Perhaps as an equal-and-opposite reaction to the ubiquity of mosh-happy riff-merchants, a sort of head music revival got underway in the ’90s, focusing on sounds designed to exercise the brainpan more than the biceps. Like most of its ilk, this Philadelphia quintet defies the video era’s short-attention-span format with drawn-out, undulating jams that require the listener to exert a fair amount of effort in order to stay afloat amidst the waves of crashing sound. Not that Bardo Pond is entirely unfair about it; the band does throw out a tow line in the form of the ravishingly pretty flute melodies conjured up by primary vocalist Isobel Sollenberger.

In a clever (but not altogether surprising) titling move, the quintet borrowed the Latin name of the hallucinogen-secreting Colorado River toad for Bufo Alvarius, an album that’s every bit as synapse-destroying as its namesake. More consistently aggressive than like-minded drone-dreamers Magic Hour and Spiritualized, Bardo Pond recalls Hawkwind’s headier days in psychedelic sludgestorms like the half-hour-long “Amen 29:15.” The bottom-end heft is countered by Sollenberger’s ethereal vocals — which bear a passing resemblance to that of Renaissance art-rock songbird Annie Haslam — and her playing, which is so striking that it just about absolves the flute for the sins of Ian Anderson.

Big Laughing Jym, a seven-song collection of album outtakes and home-studio stuff, accentuates the scrungier elements of the band’s sound, namely the hepatic guitar rumblings winnowed out by the brotherly tandem of John and Michael Gibbons on “Dispersion” and “Clearhead.” The premeditated lack of infrastructure makes it a chore to maintain equilibrium (see the lunging “Champ”), but the outer-ear pleasures more than make up for the inner-ear discomfort.

Amanita finds the band reconsidering the dosage on the prescriptions it writes-average song length is way shorter — without sacrificing intensity or effect. The free-form guitar scrawls of “Limerick” and “Tantric Porno” refract chaos in much the same way prog-rock forefathers like Ash Ra Tempel did — but by compacting the commotion into four- and five-minute bursts and all but eliminating passages of blissed-out trance, Bardo Pond makes sure not to lose control of the universe it has created.

[Deborah Sprague]