These days there is something immediately odd that comes to mind when using the word psychedelia or space-rock referred to contemporary music.
What in the past decades was so well defined to be at the same time mainstream and avant-garde scattered randomly and has been diluted in endless revivals. The meaning of the word got confused into a facet of disperse musical genres spread over a galaxy of eccentric and colourful acts.
Regardless it is alt.folk, dream-pop, indie-rock or whatever other directions music takes, it seems there is always space to put the “psychedelic” adjective in a band Facebook page.
Those mind expanding drugs that Jimi Hendrix celebrated expanding their acronyms into musical poetry, “Stars That Play with Laughing Sam’s Dice” to name one, have disappeared from hippy conventions and even from the most experimentalist of psychoanalyst studios.
Those songs went forgotten, pearls from an ancient empire that iPods rarely hosts; those drugs became mere subjects of Burroughs novels and Leary writings.
Among the several hyped up psychedelic-ish revivals, there was one interesting trend. It started in Philadelphia in the 90s (don’t tell me the 90s haven’t been a great decade for music) and among the others was pioneered by a band: Bardo Pond.
The (as known as) “Psychedelphia” movement put the sonic explosion brought those years by the likes of Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Spacemen 3 and friends into the rock suites that used to expand altered minds in the previous decades.
Bardo Pond formed in the early 90’s. They resurrecting Pink Floyd or Grateful Dead concept but, Instead of celebrating it, Bardo Pond submerge the original idea under multiple layers of feedback, distorted guitar, slow pace borrowed from shoegaze, stoner rock, noise. Interventions of the ethereal voice of Isobel Sollenberger were kept to the essential minimum.
Working as counter intuitive archaeologists, Bardo Pond didn’t rediscover psychedelia digging it out from the ashes that buried the movement during the 80s. In fact they brought it back to life inundating everything under voluminous waves of electric guitar noise. That same guitar uproar that few bands some years before used as a weapon to melt the plastic, synthetic sound of the early eighties.
Bardo Pond references sound a bit dated even for an outmoded genre too often relegated to its iconic cliches and cult following. The album titles: Bufo Alvarius (a psychoactive toad), Amanita (a psychoactive mushroom), Dilate (erm…), the kaleidoscopic optical art used for some covers (Amanita, Set and Setting) aren’t too inviting but their music brings a wave of freshness to those bearded nostalgics in search of long, trippy compositions to float in their ears so… bear with me.
If the first feeling you get playing Bardo Pond albums is to roll a joint, lick a stamp or swallow a pill, to allow your mind losing itself in the slow progress of the music, it can be surprising to discover how pleasant it is to follow an entire Bardo Pond CD even while sipping a tea in a sober, lazy afternoon laying on a sofa.
The same reason why it was delightful to listen to Bardo Pond live set at the 2 PM after-saturday-lunch gig. Their brilliant show midway through the mayhem which was the three days of the ATP festival curated by Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
This is where I first met Bardo Pond live and where these pictures have been taken.
The hour-long set by Isobel and her mates was one of my favourites of the entire festival I spent “embracing the extreme”.
If her celestial voice gets a bit lost in the recordings, her almost spiritual presence, wearing a multicolour geometric dress, captured the entire audience. Several hundreds people kept following the intangible moves that were designing an evanescent dance to the guitars’ drone.
As intangible as the same meaning of the word psychedelia, Bardo Pond career progression has a slow pace like their long pieces. A repeated structure with small variations, enough to keep the attention on, not too much to slip away from known ground.
They know that nineties are over. A decade of indie fashion, folk revival and dream pop changed the music panorama during the last 15 years.
The only one constant Bardo Pond kept, from the nineties to today, is the length of their albums. They always fill the entire space of a CD, ignoring the vinyl length, back in fashion, set around at 40 minutes.
No exceptions, latest self-titled Bardo Pond fatigue, out at the end of 2010, lasts well over 70 mins and attempts to move another small step ahead. The sonic immersion their fans know well from their beginning, is left aside a bit. As to acknowledge the reality of entering a new decade.
As soon as you press play on the CD you hear something different. The order of events is inverted, instead of opening with a classic Bardo Pond feedback, the album opens with Isobel singing over a simple guitar arpeggio.
Throughout the album, as well as at the concert, her presence is more prominent than ever before and the volume of the noise has been turned down to give the voice more space.
It works. In the most minimalist, melodic passages, Isobel deep voice reminds me of Victoria Legrand from Beach House. Daring a risky game, the album sounds a challenging attempt to fuse the sweet melodies of dream pop to the coarse guitars of their angular psychedelia.
Don’t worry, the electric-guitar-loaded space shuttle is still there rocketing you to outer spaces but it happens peacefully.
The concert, expectedly, revolves around the latest album which is on a new label and it’s sold few metres away.
Isobel Sollenberger plays a flute as to acknowledge bucolic scenery and folk memories but, as anything she touches, the instrument becomes imperceptible, indistinguishable yet present.
The result is a transversal piece of music that tries to be contained within the initial frame put up by acoustic arpeggios, anxious drumming, singing melodies and flute interludes before the electric guitars arrive to deconstruct every attempt to fabricate an harmonic unicum.
Regardless the many albums, the many years of activity, the shrinking number of psychedelia aficionados, the music industry crisis Bardo Pond are honestly continuing a musical journey that ignores neither their roots nor the awareness that the world is changing. With no interest at anything else beyond their music, they keep recording and playing what they love to record and to play. Such a coherence must be acknowledged… As well as the much better cover of the latest album. This band sounds ready for new adventures.
Bardo Pond light-show is part of their music, as you would expect for any space rock ensemble, geometric, optical lights have been casting kaleidoscopic figures throughout the entire set.
As anyone who looked through a kaleidoscope experienced, shapes and colour change quickly and unexpectedly in such a situation. This was more or less what the audience faced during the show.
What you don’t care, looking at a kaleidoscope or wathing a Bardo Pond concert, is where the light source that creates the effect is. Photography-wise, instead, the light source is very important because it falls within the frame and complicates things.
If the spotlights design nice rounded designs on the floor, the same bulbs are bright and white when leaves their lamp and put very strong highlight in your images.
Backlights have never been a problem to me, I like using them, but you need good control of your camera settings otherwise you end up with underexposed dark pictures.
Cameras tend to behave roughly as human eyes. When a very strong light from a small source hit you, your pupil shrink to let less in. Camera shrink the aperture ring doing the same (or increase the shutter speed depending on your settings).
To avoid underexposed images with a white beam, you need either to set your camera to manual mode so that it is not influenced by the light, to do so a couple of attempts are needed to set the right aperture/speed pair.
A less predictable but quicker way to overcome the situation, is to leave the camera in a aperture or shutter priority mode but setting the exposure compensation button (learn to use it properly, it is one of the most useful camera functions) to a +2 EV from the measured light.
When this happens the effect can be quite amazing, your subject wont be too dark and it will be surrounded by a white wave of light.
Be experimental, the advantage of shooting digital is that you can see what is happening in due course. Take advantage of this for a quick check, but do not spend to much time looking all your pics, three songs don’t last long. Bardo Pond is an exception.