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A lilting, calm, one-note theme played on a clean electric guitar introduces Bongripper’s debut, The Great Barrier Reefer. This is their best release to date; it’s the most focussed, and contains their best songwriting. Although certain individual songs on follow-up Hippie Killer would be better than anything found on this release, the album as a whole is less good. The Great Barrier Reefer takes the form of a single song of the same title, almost an hour and twenty minutes in length.
The introduction is one of my all-time favourite album opening sections. It’s just that one note over and over, in a gentle, swaying rhythm. It’s multi-tracked and layered so that it has a surprisingly emphatic presence, and doesn’t feel thin or weak. Over this, a distorted, slightly pitch-shifted treated voice performs a lengthy reading from the Book of Revelation—the passages dealing with The Great Dragon’s war on heaven, and with The Great Beast with seven heads and ten horns. In other words, these are some of the more entertaining Bible passages. Due to they way they are presented, however, the words are often slightly difficult to make out, and they aren’t so important to the experience in any case; the overall effect generated by this portion is a kind of hypnotic, mesmerising aesthetic. It really draws the listener in, projecting a rather curious, but ultimately quite gripping mood. It really endears me to the piece as a whole, which starts after some seven or eight minutes, and almost seems to come too soon. It should be pointed out, however, that I am a fan of minimalism and this section won’t appeal to everyone. However, I embolden the listener to try to appreciate it for what it is: a prologue, of sorts.
Now that the scene is set, the first big metal riff is free to blast in, and it’s a great one. The Great Barrier Reefer, apart from the intro, and some calm sections later, is primarily built around solid, groovy stoner metal riffs with minor influences from sludge and stoner doom. It’s entirely instrumental after the intro, and is performed using drums, bass, and guitar only. A liberal application of various unusual guitar techniques, to say nothing of creative riffing and thematic development, are used in order to keep the music interesting. Although the bass is not nearly as audible or prominent as it would be on later releases, careful listening reveals that it is generally to be found to be doing something interesting. Petzke is a talented performer indeed. The drums, performed by O’Connor, are also important to the overall sound, chiefly using variations in snare, bass drum, and crash symbol patterns to push the music forward. This driving effect is quite important, because while the pace is actually mid-tempo—faster than would be expected from a release of this length and nature—it does flirt with slipping into lazy, stale patterns. The drums quite effectively prevent this from occurring. This is best demonstrated by a lengthy section of clean guitar and bass that is performed without drums, near the middle of the song. Without the percussive drive, this section gets lazy, loose, and sloppy, and fairly dull as a result. It is the worst feature of the album.
The structure used in this release is fairly simple. It consists of a number of fairly lengthy sections, mostly about ten minutes long, give or take about five. Each section begins with a heavily-repeated riff. However, on each repetition, something is changed. The drummer will start adding extra fills, for instance, or the bass will perform a counterpoint melody. The use of two guitars allows for substantial alterations to the sound also—dropouts, stop/starts, harmonising or counterpoint, or sometimes one guitar will begin creating almost random-sounding noise, similar to the second guitar part on Her Highness. Clean guitar is also used on occasion to produce much mellower versions of the portions, but this gentler approach is far less often applied than on Hippie Killer. The riffs are generally built around a solid thematic core, but moderated until they are barely recognisable or identifiable. Mellower and harsher versions of the riffs are explored, and the degree of complexity changes frequently. Accordingly, they never get boring. This is a superior treatment to all of the following releases, which do use this technique, but not to the same extent. Accordingly, the longer songs on these albums can tend to drag. Additionally, although The Great Barrier Reefer does contain a couple of sections which are based more around guitar noise than anything, these tend to follow fairly logically from the metal sections and are not nearly as abstract or contextless as the noisy interludes on Hippie Killer, nor as protracted as those on Hate Ashbury. As such, this album is far more consistently enjoyable than either of those releases.
It does have to be said, however, that the decision to present the entire album as one track wasn’t necessarily entirely appropriate. When I listen to it, I hear 8 distinct sections. Bongripper would have been better advised to set these as separate tracks with numbers, similar to Hate Ashbury. Although I personally prefer to listen to albums as a whole, I know that many listeners would prefer to skip the intro and the big, over-long, clean middle section. Additionally, it’s fairly frustrating not to be able to jump back to approximately the right point if the listening session gets interrupted. I wouldn’t mind so much if this felt like it was really one song, like Dopesmoker for example, but it just doesn’t have that unified characteristic. Nor is it quite as absorbing as Sleep’s masterwork is.
Despite the flaws—most importantly, that unsatisfying middle section—The Great Barrier Reefer is a really great piece. Contrary to the experience that I have had with many bands of their ilk, Bongripper have shown that they can make their best music when they keep it simple, and don’t start dwelling on experimental pieces and noise tracts. Sometimes the foundations are the best, and this highly enjoyable slab of stoner metal/doom highlights that fact with aplomb and style.