With its slew of 20-plus splits, EPs, live albums and compilations, Bong’s discography over the last four years is almost as murky as the UK four-piece’s music itself. On their Ritual Productions (who released Ramesses’ album last year and will have more from them shortly) debut, Beyond Ancient Space, Bong don’t so much affect an atmosphere as inflict it. From within a haze so thick you can’t see out of it, Bong straddle a line between sludge and drone that’s unquestionably heavy despite its jammed-out, live feel. The repetition on Beyond Ancient Space’s three tracks – which cover an overwhelming 79:51 runtime – is encompassing. In succession, “Onward to Perdóndaris” (25:33), “Across the Timestream” (25:03) and “In the Shadow of the Towers” (29:16) mesmerize with riffs, or rather, with riff, because despite an evolution within each track, Bong’s tendency is to spend an awfully long time jamming out the same part.
If you’ve ever seen a solo drone performance or someone constructing soundscapes with guitar, you’ve probably watched as they set a bed of loops that gradually, as the piece progresses, is built upon. As a full band, Bong nonetheless feel like they’re doing the same thing on Beyond Ancient Space’s component material. Each song begins gradually. “Onward to Perdóndaris” opens with silence before someone – presumably bassist Dave Terry, who handles vocals when they pop up – says “Perdóndaris” and the bass kicks in, soon followed by the drums of Mike Smith and Mike Vest’s guitar. Ben Freeth contributes sitar and Shahi Baaja, which rests repetitive figures on top of the aforementioned bed of drones. Smith does the honor of keeping Bong’s Beyond Ancient Space moving forward, which is no easy task, and one gets the sense that without his (again) gradual slowdown on “Across the Timestream,” the song might just go on forever into perpetuity.
Listening to Beyond Ancient Space, it’s easy to hear why Bong would want to put out so many live records. Their sound has very little that’s premeditated about it, and one gets the sense that if any single pedal were unplugged or one knob twisted in a different direction, any given passage could sound different on any given day. Freeth’s added parts feel scripted, and doubtless Smith had some sense of what he wanted the beat to be on “Onward to Perdóndaris” and the unrelentingly bleak “In the Shadow of the Towers” – or at least the pacing – but there’s such a pervasive looseness in the material here, especially from Vest and Terry, that the songs aren’t so much constructed as carried down a river of oscillating wavelengths. For most listeners, it’s simply going to be too much to sit and pay attention to front to back, as concentrating through the full 80 minutes (I’m comfortable rounding up the nine seconds) is exhausting and perhaps counter to Bong’s intended listening experience, but there are some – I’m seeing backpatches, beards and fuck-all – who will embrace the album’s cold, agonizing, lonely death like a long-lost friend.
There’s worship inherent in their droning and plodding, but Bong are more into some kind of dark-arts ritual than the standard stoner mythology, and for that, their doom is even more potent. That it was recorded low and you virtually have to listen to it loud to listen at all is just another step in the oppression of Beyond Ancient Space’s ambience. As Smith once again culls together some form of build on “In the Shadow of the Towers” to go along with Terry and Vest’s undulations and the ringing tones of Freeth, the linear progress of the album becomes clearer, but don’t go thinking Bong make it easy, or friendly, or put it out there for you to soak in the catchiness of it all. Their assault gets its brutal feel from the unforgiving nature of the drone, like SunnO))) met with Sleep with a black metal recording job. The album’s conclusion, appropriately enough, is a long fade, and I don’t want to say it’s completely instrumental, but if there are vocals, they’re buried deep and rare at best. Far more important to understanding Beyond Ancient Space is coming to terms with the fact that, most likely, the album will undo you. I don’t mean that in some pretentious “will shake up your conceptions of what music can be” kind of way, just that 80 minutes of vicious drone is a fucking lot to take on, and many listeners – if they’re able to digest it at all – will require multiple sessions to do so. If you think you can endure it, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Tags: Bong, Ritual Productions, UK