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One of my favourite music anecdotes comes courtesy of Bong. Seemingly big fans of "special smoking", these guys from Newcastle, England chose what would appear to be a rather overt band name for their drug-induced excursions into psychedelia. However, not overt enough for some. When asked by his mother what the name of his band meant, Dave Terry decided to respond in the only way he saw fit. Neglecting to mention anything about narcotics, he told her, "It's...you know...it's the sound a bell makes." And so it is - we can't disagree with that.
However snigger-worthy the situation was, there isn't a great deal about the band, or their debut album, to incite laughter, sticking mostly to a super-serious take on slow drone doom that possesses a bit of the red-eyed hoariness of Sleep and mixes it with the darker shapes and more frazzled journeys of Earth, Sunn O))), or the UK's Moss. These guys definitely go for the ritual aspect of this style of music, oozing out gradually into long musical pieces that attempt to engulf the listener in atmosphere and mystery by means of slow clangs of sitar, monkish chants with indistinguishable lyrics, and the percussive tick and bong that tolls out steadily. For all intents and purposes, we can regard this album as instrumental or even ambient, since the singing doesn't really add words (aside from a brief narrative section in 'The Starlit Grotto') and the attraction is to be found in the space opened up by the music, not by specific parts of the sound.
I have the version of this album with the lengthened second track, though no bonus, so 'The Starlit Grotto' weighs in heaviest at 26 minutes and is capable of creating more of an arena for divergence, with the second half littered with quiet detail from the sitar and the groan of feedback. When Bong get going in this manner, they do manage to create quite a cavern of sound that belies its relative simplicity and drags the listener down into its murky depths. On the other hand, the first third of 'The Starlit Grotto' is disappointingly empty, with a low, universe-level, throb of bass filling the silence along with the mysterious (meaningless) striking of one sitar note. As it builds, the piece becomes more and more impressive, banishing time and revelling in the sheer size of the music, though there isn't much of a climax to this growth, more of a continuation towards critical mass of instrumentation and then a brief wind-down. The first track, 'Wizards of Krull', is a more straightforward take on the gap between stoner rock and drone doom, incorporating a bottom-feeding groove for much of its length and featuring a squally solo (nothing too classic, don't worry) around the 9 minute mark. The atmosphere isn't as potent as in the Grotto, though this certainly isn't Motley Crue by any means.
Since the focus is more on instruments during 'Wizards of Krull', it seems suitable to point out that Bong's style doesn't contain enough stoner rock elements to satisfy in any basic musical way, unless you pick up great vibes from the small sitar parts, while the drone side of things does generate atmosphere though not consistently enough to capture the listener's mind for 40 minutes. Bong certainly don't have the advantage of a band like Om, who in their early days could maintain interest from either the crushing bass riffs or the ritual repetition and shamanistic chanting, but they aren't quite as detached as Sunn O))) or Boris, and thus can't make it out the door of this world and into the next. We remain stuck somewhere in between, in the limbo of listening and feeling - half experiencing the bong of narcotic journeying and the bong of the timekeeping bell. The album is decent, but - just like Dave Terry with his mum - it's holding something back.
Reissued in 2012 with an extra track "Asleep" that makes the album nearly twice as long as it was originally, this self-titled debut album from the aptly named Bong is a mighty droning work that might well reference Sleep in its low sonorous vocals and intensely circular music. The original album was split into two tracks of roughly equal length, "Wizards of Krull" and "The Starlit Grotto". There are very minimal lyrics attached to these two tracks and they spell scenes in faraway lands of faraway times, in which despotic rulers used rite and magic to keep populations in thrall while secret cults gather in underground caves to pass messages to one another in obscure codes and hieroglyphs. The recording is slow, stately to the point of being ponderous and is even arduous: droning stoner rock does not come easily no matter what listeners think!
"Wizards of Krull" might well be a rite in itself, with the hypnotic looping music intended to put you in a trance so that you enter Krull and observe the ceremonies performed, maybe even participate in them. (Just so long as you're not chosen as the sacrificial lamb.) While percussion and rhythm guitar pound out the monotonous and sometimes harrowing rhythms, lead guitar sound out like shofars calling worshippers to attention. Low droning voices intone the sacred messages to put all in a deep meditative state, concentrating their mental energies on pushing the ritual as far as it will go.
"The Starlit Grotto" is a very gradual and evolving piece that accumulates, bit by tiny bit, flotsam and jetsam of musical fragments and beats onto a very basic structure of pulsing bass notes that repeat over and over. (On the reissued album, this track is much longer than what I take is the original 16:30-minute running time - it lasts over 25 minutes.) A spoken vocal breaks the solemn spell cast by the music: it's as if we had been waiting for a large enough gathering of spirits or people in meditation for an atmosphere to develop that will conduct power generated by thought and mindfulness to wherever the thinkers in trance wish it to go. Quiet concentrated and single-minded intensity is the hallmark of this track, emphasised by licks and then melodies of sitar, long sinuous bass drone and deep resonating chanting vocals.
Bonus track "Asleep" is at once similar to and very different from the previous two tracks. In structure it's just as minimal and restricted: a basic rhythm structure of repeating prolonged bass tones, simple drumming and a pounding beat suggesting an endurance test of sorts. The track develops slowly by building up instrumentation and has the feel of a intense ritual but there is also a darker and less welcoming, more sinister and forbidding mood. The singing seems more inhuman and guitars and a thin buzzy drone suggest an spacey alien atmosphere high above and below.
All three tracks are very atmospheric and mesmerising, incredibly focussed and intense. If there is a fault, it is that they are very low-key and, for some listeners, will probably be frustrating as they have no definite tension-releasing climaxes after long build-ups. If listeners pay very close attention, they will sense a turning-point after which a track will ease off and start to end. Codas may take some time to finish and even when silence appears, the ambience still takes time to disappear.
The band's sound is quite clear, revealing a huge cavern of space in which secret rites take place and sinister figures in black sit or stand together to meditate and join their minds to create and sustain an unseen yet felt power. "Asleep" has a bluesy feel which at times gives the track a slight air of melancholy, even desperation, which might be unintended.
The debut album is a good start to what so far has turned out to be a steadily rising career, similar to the music itself, for Bong. Hopefully when recognition beyond their native shores beckons, the band can quickly take advantage of that, instead of the recognition being realised after the group's moment in the spotlight has passed.
[NOTE: This is a review of the 2012 reissue of the album with the bonus track 'Asleep', originally written for http://destructive-music.com/]
Following in the wake of their triumphant performances at festivals like Roadburn and Supersonic (not to mention to their excellent last record ‘Mana-Yood-Sushai’), Newcastle’s finest doomsayers Bong have been enjoying wider recognition of late, and rightfully so – this long haired, red eyed quartet has been creating some of the most striking and original sounding doom I’ve ever heard. For newcomers, Bong’s extensive discography of CD-Rs, splits and live recordings can seem pretty daunting, so the time is more than nigh for a reissue of their long out-of-print debut album.
Bong’s approach is a lot less riff based than many of their contemporaries, instead opting for the cultivation and realisation of colossal bowel-rumbling drones and eerie, transcendental atmospheres. In this context, Bong’s decision to expand the standard power trio format to include an additional sitar & shahi baaja player makes perfect sense. It’s not every day you hear of a doom band utilising the calming tones of a sitar, but Bong’s use of the instrument is very tasteful indeed. Rather than allowing the sitar to take primary focus and overshadow the other musical components, it’s used as much more of a textural tool, accentuating the glacial guitar chords with subtle Eastern flourishes and broadening the record’s aural palette; not once does their use of the instrument ever seem gimmicky or cheesy.
Freed from the record’s original vinyl restrictions, we’re now treated to a totally new bonus track, the absolutely stunning ‘Asleep’. Bong’s penchant for infinite riffs and marijuana worship have often garnered comparisons to the mighty Sleep, but nowhere is this influence more apparent than this song, with its ominous, lumbering drive recalling the aforementioned trio’s ‘Dopesmoker’, albeit with huge satchels of opium replacing that song’s leafier green muse. Rather than feeling like a hastily slapped together bonus, this track fits in perfectly next the album’s original pair of sonic monoliths, providing a welcome continuation of the humongous hypnotic pulse of fan favourite ‘Wizards Of Krull’ and ‘The Starlit Grotto’s deep, mystical vortex.
As with most Bong recordings, the sound is resolutely lo-fi (last year’s ‘Mana-Yoo-Sushai’ was in fact the band’s first time in a studio) but everything is clearly audible, and the subtle layer of fuzz actually adds quite a bit to these songs, smoothing the edges of each separate sound source so that they all coalesce into one unified sonic soup, slowly oozing out of the speakers and filling the room until completely enveloping the listener. In a sense, Bong’s sound could be likened the snail-paced pulling power of quicksand; you may not even realise it at first, and you may even struggle to escape, but Bong’s planet shaking drones will slowly transfix and consume you whether you like it or not. If you missed out on this the first time round, this is an absolutely essential purchase.