After a desert of years, an oasis of noisy, time-enfolding sonic richness… Their last full missive from the inky droning depths having emerged in 2015, Bong return from the ancient future with a stellar new LP, Thought and Existence from Ritual Productions, while a set of monuments from their past is excavated, in the form of three elemental Roadburn sets to come out as a triple vinyl box on Roadburn Records.
Julian Cope once wrote a review of Sleep’s Dopesmoker/Jerusalem by saying that it was as if four California teenagers had found Black Sabbath’s first four records buried in the desert and started a religion. Bong is like what would happen if a gang of wizard-mutants in the ruined future dug up Julian Cope’s review, tried to imagine the sounds described there but went too far, destroying time and reality through massive drone riffs and somehow sending their insane rituals back to our century, encoded on tapes and records and CDrs which sporadically plop into existence and immediately, for those with ears to hear, bend gravity itself towards their black hole dirges.
If that dirge cult did indeed form, I imagine that after several centuries three great churches of drone would emerge, following the rite of the demo, of the studio, and of the live recording. By my count, since the self-titled debut from 2009, this makes Thought and Existence the eighth studio album, while there are many live tapes and CDrs and vinyl splits and digital demos. Not so much live stuff on wax, however, which is perhaps a bit surprising, though any of the band’s releases have a spontaneous, organic feel to them anyway. But there’s only the first Roadburn set that was already released on its own, and Live at St Mary’s Church and Burial Ground, which is just a little too far on the muddy side in terms of the sound recording to do the band full justice. If ever there were a site to watch (and record and release) this band live though, it would have to be Roadburn, the Tilburg temple of all things heavy from psych-prog to black metal to abyssal doom drone. The Roadburn sets collected on this Box of Bong (the vinyl coming out later in the year) includes remastered live Bong sets from 2010, 2012 and 2014. The physical version doesn’t exist yet so I can’t comment on the specifics of the package itself, the tracks are available to stream already, and the first instalment was released years ago and already constitutes a high point in the band’s discography. So regarding that release, this review might not have that much point to it, but anyway, here’s some rambling about the greatest drone doom band to have ever visited one of the greatest locations on earth to listen to drone doom bands.
Amongst the crucial and utterly distinctive features of the great Bong are the incantations of Dave Terry, in which the bass player intones brief fragments of literary weirdness that serve not as definitive schema for the tracks but rather as jumping off points for strange reveries, whether you know (or care about) the source material or not. Early on in the band’s career they tended to be derived almost exclusively from the spectacular and whimsical, folkloric but stellar tales of Lord Dunsany, with later expansions of the drone universe including a glancing reference to Clark Ashton Smith, and a long quote from Lovecraft (and even the entire short story ‘Polaris’ included on the inner gatefold) on 2014’s Stoner Rock. These snippets tend to hint at trances, wanderings or catastrophically peculiar transportation across dimensions, often from characters who suffer paranoia or vertigo-like confusion about not being able to tell dream from reality from insanity. Fitting, then, for the mind-obliterating sound that the band produce, which can remove the ability to speak, wreak havoc with time perception and induce a hypnotic dream state which combines a numb confusion with visionary power.
The actual vocal qualities range from the fireside-story-teller to the visionary mumbler to the wild-eyed-screecher-of-starry-wisdom… on the first track of the already-available-but-now-remastered 2010 Roadburn set is amongst the classics of the latter genre: ‘FROM THE STARS THEY CAME!! blaaack… castles… of stone…’. The 2014 set kicks off with a slowburn, malevolent but melancholy rendition of ‘Polaris’, about a lookout in a tower who becomes mesmerised beyond sanity by the pole star… or is that tale even a fevered raving? Whatever, the opening lines perfectly set the scene of oppressive, chest-constricting doom (‘I have failed in my duties and betrayed the marble city of Olathoe…’) which somehow still manages to open out onto wide distorted desolation (…there has been naught save ice and snow/for thousands of years….).
On the Thought and Existence record we move further afield in literary terms, to the perhaps more canonical greats of Borges and Dostoevsky. The latter provides the line that opens first track ‘The Golden Fields’, from the story ‘Dream of a Ridiculous Man’… ‘It happened, as it always does in dreams, when you skip over space and time and the laws of thought and existence, and only pause on the points for which the heart yearns’, the last few words of which bring in a rising tide of darkly glittering distortion compost and rolling gong-clouds. Out of this then grows a riff, obvious like a mountain, with searing, soaring guitar solo lines from Mike Vest joined by hollow-voiced ranks of ominous chanters. With the cymbals, restrained drums and a certain detached quality to the sound and the band’s interaction, it’s quite an ambient example of Bong’s longform doom- as with all music of this style, a curious balance of minimalism and excess that then disappears into the coppery smoke of more cymbal washes at the end.
Then ‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ begins, and, contrasting with the creeping intro of the first track, this one is straight in and up to 11 with an initial stumbling stutter on the drums which momentarily heightens the wait for the downbeat. This sort of works in a similar way in the opposite direction, to Mike Vest’s delayed wheeling guitar downbeats, in evidence on the freer passages of the live Roadburn sets, creating a tension within the head-nodding determinism. Back on Thought and Existence’s second track, of course the hit comes inevitably, and once the noise has built up there’s more of the sliding piercing guitar that is quite distinctive to this record amongst other Bong outings. Though there’s no ritual incantation towards the beginning of the track, its name comes from a Jorge Luis Borges short story, in which an imaginary world is conjured by a construction involving mirrors and encylopaedias…. The imagined book in the story is described in a way that perfectly encapsulates the music’s effect: ‘a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet’s entire history’. All sound and time is contained in each Bong performance; and all Bong performances are present in each single moment of Bong sound.
Similar to the effect of the literary excerpts are the fragment-of-strange-lands album covers. Thought and Existence is adorned with an instantly appropriate star chart, as just like their music it scatters esoteric patterns over cosmic vastness. Their previous record sleeves have often taken excerpts from great paintings from different eras and traditions, but each with a hint of the psychotropic sacred to them. The cover of 2007’s self-titled album is a maelstrom of thunder from Turner’s Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. On 2012’s Mana-Yood-Sushai, a detail from a Nicholas Roerich painting of Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas (it’s been suggested it’s from his 1933 work Mount of Five Treasures, but I think actually it’s from 1939’s Himalaya. Blue Mountains, a later version of the same landscape). And 2014’s Stoner Rock displays an untitled mountain painting by Zladislaw Beksinski, the foreground strewn with what look like vast bones of long-forgotten giants. I mention these since they’re all reproduced on the Roadburn sets, at least the digital versions- it remains to be seen what we get on the records themselves. Great and perfectly fitting as these images are, it does seem a slight lack of ambition to simply use existing album covers for a major live compilation, particularly since they’re not always actually live sets of those albums specifically- on the 2010 set, the album cover is from 2007’s Bong, but half of the tracks (ok, so that’s one out of two, but still) come from Beyond Ancient Space. And the band playing live means that they always stray far, far from ‘the album version’ of any track anyway, so why not a new visual departure point? Perhaps the robed monk and skull combo that previous label Burning World had decided on for the earlier live record was acknowledged as a bit out of step with the band’s normal practice of visionary landscapes, and they played it safe this time as a result. There’s another careless point in the track ‘Onward to Perdondaris’ being mistitled as ‘Onward to Perdnanus’, but such things might well be ironed out for the material release, and anyway all pedantic concerns should quickly drop away in the face of compulsory monolithic dirge worship, as soon as the discs begin to turn.
The live sets in particular, driven on by cymbals and little anticipatory runs, showcase Mike Smith’s skills as an excellent, versatile and above all patient drummer, with some passages (notably in 2012’s rendition of ‘Trees Grass and Stone’) among the fastest I’ve ever heard in a Bong set (as ever, it’s about slow development more than slow tempo; or, as with Glasgow band Ommadon, it’s about a sense of vast scale as much as about actual speed). It surely takes skill and reserve to allow these galactic-scale mutations to evolve- I fully appreciate that spending ten minutes at the beginning of a song, slumped over the kit and apparently half comatose is an inspired talent, awaiting the call from the depths to awaken, entranced, to lock the world-destroying drone into a solid rhythm with which to relentlessly obliterate consciousness. Speaking of slowness, a great thing about Bong is their voyages into the unexplored potential of slowing down- there’s lots of bands play slow, or present unmetered expanses of doom sound, but here the flexibility of the percussion work in combination with a willingness to speed up for a bit and then slow down for a lot, actually allows a powerful manipulation of the the fabric of time and rhythm, underwritten by the ever-present pure amplified doom drone.
On the triple-set release we get a neat showcase of the three, four and five person line-ups, the core trio of Dave Terry and two Mikes, Smith and Vest, with Benjamin Freeth joining on Shahi Baaja in 2012 (those unmistakable twinkling zoings on ‘Dreams of Mana Yood Sushai’), and then Pete Ryde a further addition on guitar for 2014. MIke Vest’s guitar is all intense dread psych, from endless dirt krssshhhh, to a hurricane wheeling and whirling churn. ‘Trees Grass and Stone’ is stunning, starting with fully ten minutes of just pure wild electricity, like you’ve plugged your mind into the thick fuzz cable. There’s unhinged insect skittering at the end of ‘Dreams of Mana Yood Sushai’, and great crackling thunder shards of guitar are thrown down at the end of ‘Onward to Perdondaris’. Across the band’s releases, Vest seems to be assisting Dave Terry’s bass in a shadowy heist where they’ve constructed some sort of occult sonic drill which just grinds and grinds away, threatening to break into the abyssal vaults of the universe’s sonic consciousness.
Bong played a London show last year as support for Dylan Carlson’s collaboration with The Bug… Apparently they were delayed in arriving so had to hastily set up, and this led to a somewhat rushed show. Certainly not their best live representation (though soon enough there was an opportunity to see the other end of the spectrum, at their darkly transcendent performance at the Woodland Gathering, during which worlds and galaxies came into being and then collapsed into nothingness). Anyway, the London show was interesting even if (or actually because) it never quite kicked into gear– other people at the show I talked to said it didn’t really work for them. But even though it was severely truncated, for me it was possible even with just a few moments of their excessive slow-exploding dirge to escape into a boundless realm of starlit broken time, like when you’re waking up, fall back asleep and manage to unexpectedly have a seven-hour dream that all takes place in a ten minute interval (as counted, at least, in mundane time according to the alarm clock). If that’s possible even during a shortened and misfiring show, then these releases, both the new time capsule from Ritual Productions and the mammoth triple live set, can provide keys to strange wonders indeed.
Owen’s book on drone metal is published by Bloomsbury Academic and is available here. Or take a look at the price and get your library to buy a copy instead.