Set and Setting LP/CD

Bardo Pond
Set and Setting

It's rare to find today a rock 'n' roll act that doesn't in some way aspire to the big corporate beat-off (i.e. MTV, etc.). What used to qualify as suitable motives for being in a rock 'n' roll band — things like self-expression — now take a back seat to grooming and production. The goal is to succeed by any means possible. Otherwise, what's the point?

This kind of thinking's more of less destroyed the credibility of just about all post-MTV rock, to the point where a whole other rock scene has had to emerge in opposition to the so-called "real" one (the one most people know about). But this oppositional pose, while defiantly anti-marketplace, is also impossibly self-negating, because once the damage is done, there's no turning back. Meanwhile, the outsider's stance of bands like Bardo Pond has turned into a cliquish credibility factor of its own. They know they're never going to appeal to a mass audience, so they focus on a thinking man's premise for rock 'n' roll that basically eschews the mainstream's populist rabble. But because such motives these days are so anti-thetical to the true purpose of rock (making money), bands like Bardo Pond, despite their ultracool personas, are also easily roped into the retro camp simply because they embrace values, if not outright sounds, that date back to the days before most of today's "rockers" were even born.

I've seen Bardo Pond, because that kind of thing is big up here in Boston and they play here a lot, and it seemed to me like the kids were trying to recreate their own Avalon Ballroom (if not Exploding Plastic Inevitable). There was a lot of swaying; a lot of bored, disaffected standing around; and lots and lots of trippy improv-based jams that go on like dirges and probably sound damn good if you're stoned.

Keeping this in mind, I can't say I was surprised when I heard Set and Setting. But since it's such a total art-for-art's sake excursion-and since it sounds so completely unlike the pigeonhole-ready remnants of today's deplorable "rock" scene — Set's actually somewhat of a modern masterpiece. The jams are long, but one can't really say they go nowhere, and that's a big difference between Bardo Pond and and a lot of others who've also attempted this kind of pseudo-psycheledic tomfoolery. Sensibility-wise, they alternate between the guitar carnage of primal Sonic Youth and the mad abandon of the early Grateful Dead. A fine cut is "Crawl Away," which, through an evocative spiral of churning guitars, constructs a towering riff that drones on and on to the best martial beat used on a rock record since Love Child's "Six of One." At times, guitarists John and Michael Gibbons evoke the almighty majesty of Alan Licht, and the chanting vocals of Isobel Sollenberger waft toward the same portion of the brain that also controls the libido.

Then again, is it a guitar? Is it even a voice? Or is it one of the oscillators that these idiots drag onstage to evoke the wildly whooshing-across-the-universe atmosphere of the prog groups they also worship (Hawkwind, etc.)? Despite all the self-referential elements they pull together, Bardo Pond's original in a way that a similarly experimental group like Blonde Redhead is not. The songs go on and on, but it sounds good, it feels good. It turns me on.

[Written by Joe S. Harrington for the New York Press. Reprinted without permission.]

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