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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.
"There is a place far to the north
Where the souls of the dead flow to unfathomable abysses
Let us tell you of this place
Let us tell you of the starlit grotto"
Like a fish and chips eaten out of greasy newspaper on a cold night by the pier, Bong are one of the delights that could make living in the north of England just that little bit more special. The Newcastle based group specialize in long and very repetitive songs, crafting great dark curtains of psychedelic stoner doom that fall as a leaden night over the listener.
Bong's music is however bereft of extensive passages deliberately engineered to be psychedelic, there are no long and bluesy solos or formless jamming. The only thing this band are interested in, is music that is unutterably heavy yet unrelentingly hypnotic. It has the same feeling as the swell and ebb of tides against a cliff or other rock face; the in-and-out motion seems gentle and rhythmic, but the casual viewer does not appreciate the ferocious natural forces pounding with all their might against one another in front of their eyes.
This self-titled album is a vinyl release that is generally thought of as the band's debut album, despite the fact that the so-called EP Bethmoora is easily twice as long. The album, like the majority of their output, is characterized by the rumble of burning guitars, and drum patterns with the patience of the centuries. The guitar sound is unlike anything I've heard from other bands; definitely fuzzy, but with a yawning, abyss-like quality to it. There is no edge to the guitars or drums, everything seems somehow muffled while still being very clear, particularly the delicious drum fills that scatter across the tracks. While being hugely heavy, it's almost a warm and reassuring sound that makes the album as appropriate for a long walk on the beach on a grey day as it is for falling asleep.
While the band have been called Sleep-worshippers, and that is a fair accusation given the narcotic doom they offer, they share Om's taste for eastern mysticism, with the ominous twanging of a sitar often joining in the music. The instrument is played with restraint; unlike many bands intent on turning their albums into movie soundtracks by prioritizing the "guest" instruments in their music, Bong use the sitar to serve their own purpose and to enhance their own music.
The first song, 'Wizards of Krull' has a forceful, throbbing riff with sonorous vocal incantations that are as ritualistic as they are funereal. A far as I can tell the vocals across the album are wordless, nothing more than chants (save a spoken word section on 'The Starlit Grotto') At first, these deep and bassy warbles put me off, but as you lose yourself in the music they begin to spiral around you with the same compelling power as everything else.
While 'Wizards of Krull' is based around repeating a few elements, the riff, the vocals, etc, to create an immersive and hypnotic feel, 'The Starlit Grotto' is more of a buildup, rising from its quiet opening moments to an increasingly dominant guitar purr that only fully takes hold after nine minutes when the vocals kick in. The bass crawls underneath with a demure but solid sound, and the sitar accentuates the guitar chords with disparate plucks.
A very sensible reviewer I once read pointed out that one does not need to be smoking anything in particular to enjoy the music of Sleep or Electric Wizard and so forth. I have yet to hear Bong's self-titled album in a state of anything but sobriety, and if you set aside the time to hear the songs in their entirety, trust me, they provide their own high. For those who enjoy Sleep, the early days of YOB and even Pink Floyd's Ummagumma Live, Bong is an excellent proposition. The only complaint is the album's short length, but Bong make up for that by being really quite prolific.