The characterization of a band as a great live act is often a prelude to an apology for an uncompelling recorded output, and a great live sound is supposed to compensate for a multitude of musical shortcomings. All too often, without the presence of a charismatic front man to sell the the band to the audience, what seems energetic and interesting live turns pedestrian in recording. Bardo Pond is a great live band, but any dichotomy between their live and recorded sound is the result of a conscious choice. In their 10th and latest album, On the Ellipse, they continue in the direction suggested by Dilate, refining and tightening their sound.
Bardo Pond's live shows are wonderfully messy pieces of performance art, irresistible in both their intensity and spontaneity. Their shows are remarkably loud, with drawn out epics that are so relentlessly noisy that the end of their shows tends to leave the audience dazed, almost grateful for the relative quiet that accompanied their exit onto the street. On the Ellipse defies any expectations created by their performance aesthetic. Aiming for subtlety rather than sheer sonic power, their songs are more tightly structured and the sophistication of their writing shines through. Although it's lacking some of the raw power of their performances, the record succeeds on its own terms. Most of the songs hover around the 10-minute mark, much shorter than the 20 minute-plus songs that characterize their live shows. While a 10-minute song for most bands might signify bloated self-indulgence, for Bardo Pond it is a mark of austerity. They've done a beautiful job of editing themselves, leaving room for their songs to stretch and develop, giving the album an expansive, but never aimless, feel.
The record opener, "JD", begins with thirty seconds of drone segueing into gentle, understated guitar and Isobel Sollenberger's vocals. While it's the heavy drones upon which the song is built, equal time is given to the more subtle elements. Her breathy and ethereal vocals shine throughout, interplayed with her similarly lovely flute playing. Despite the increased prominence of the quieter, mellower elements of the band, On the Ellipse is not a retreat from the heavy, distorted sound of earlier Bardo Pond recordings, and some songs are astonishingly muscular. Arriving mid-album, "Test" is a wonderfully loud, slow-moving song that pounds at the listener from its opening seconds. The most beautiful moments of On the Ellipse come in the transitions and in the juxtaposition of loud and the soft, like the transition in "Every Man" from screeching feedback to an ambient lull.
The album closer, "Night of Frogs", recapitulates the strengths of the album and the development of Bardo Pond's sound. By turns dreamy and dynamic, it opens with quiet charm, only to transform into a powerful rocker. Bardo Pond's increasing sophistication and versatility in On the Ellipse make it their most engaging record yet.
Words - Emily Wanderer - Dusted Magazine