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Bardo Pond: Set and Setting (1999)

September 16, 2013

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Roll: 1-3-4
Album: Bardo Pond, Set and Setting

I’m not sure if Set and Setting is the heaviest Bardo Pond record, but it has to be one of the fuzziest. Any fuzzier and it’d sound like a room full of broken TVs. Not a criticism at all, I like a fuzzed-out jam. I’m just saying this record has the fuzz turned up to eleven. That’s a good thing. Twelve might be a problem, but for the ultimate brain-blending, sludgy, fuzz-rock experience, well, anything less than ten really isn’t sufficient. Eleven is a good amount of fuzz.

It took me a long time to get into Bardo Pond. Mostly because they’re a bit of a difficult band to pigeonhole—their records range from tightly focused psychedelic indie-rock to sloppy stoner jams that slide out from under you—so I was always labouring under a misconception about what kind of band they are. In the ’90s I was under the impression they were just a lesser alt/grunge unit I didn’t need to bother with. In some ways, that’s a fair description. They hit the scene a bit later in the game (1994), never wrote pop songs and consequently never really made a splash in the public consciousness like Sonic Youth or Mudhoney did. In fact, they were pretty easy to ignore and since no one in my circles championed them, I forgot they existed for about 20 years.

Then a few summers ago a champion finally came along. My buddy Stephen told me that (since I was lamenting how I’d pretty much emptied the desert rock, shoegaze and krautrock wells) my next musical excursion should be a dive into the depths of the Bardo Pond catalogue.

I can’t remember which album I picked up first (it wasn’t Set and Setting), but I immediately understood why he’d recommended them. They are kind of like a shoegaze version of desert rock bands covering krautrock tunes (or some vice-versa combination). I discovered that instead of being ’90s alt-rock also-rans, they took the best aspects of the aforementioned Sonic Youth and  Mudhoney (SY’s sonic experimentalism and MH’s punky, psychedelic garage rock) and blended them into what might be the penultimate ’90s alt-rock melange. They distilled everything good about the era into a thick, fuzzed-out, lysergic, heavy rock goop and strained out the cloying, smug, irony-obsessed self-awareness of the indie-rock and grunge scenes.

A career-limiting side-effect of that distillation process might be that they also strained away all the hooks and, one could argue, proper songs. Even their most accessible albums on Matador, didn’t feature a lot of radio or MTV potential (though I’m a little surprised they haven’t had a track or two used in a movie soundtrack).

Bardo Pond are the kind of band that will only ever appeal to a very specific audience. An audience that wants to bliss out to long droning jams; that doesn’t want their psychedelia sanitized into kitschy pablum; an audience that appreciates Black Sabbath, Guru Guru, Nebula, HawkwindSpacemen 3 and Can equally.

Set and setting may or may not not be the best place to start with Bardo Pond—with a discography so deep it’s a little hard to target the best entry point—but it’s hardly the worst. Though perhaps a little sloppier and more narrowly focused towards one style than some of their other platters, it possesses all the elements that make them masters of their craft. If you can’t find something to appreciate (more than appreicate!) in Set and Setting, Bardo Pond probably isn’t the band for you.

Actually, if that’s the case, then psychedelic rock might not be for you.

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