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Murky Waters

Trying to describe Bardo Pond's music is a little like explaining what water tastes like to someone who's never had it. There really isn't an apt description. Yet the words "psychedelic drug band" pop up again and again when the Philadelphia quintet's name surfaces. Is Bardo Pond a psychedelic drug band?

"Fuck, I don't even know what to think about that," muses guitarist Michael Gibbons. He pauses, and then repeats, "Psychedelic drug band." Pause. "It doesn't make me cringe, it just makes me . . . um, it's kind of a limited thing for certain people. I mean, people who aren't into psychedelic drugs are just like, 'Oh, brother.' And that's not good. The music is definitely drug music, but there are a lot of other things going on. It's lazy. People need to categorize things. I mean, what else would you say about us?"

So, how would Gibbons describe his band if, say, he was placing an ad for a new guitarist?

"It's funny, when I put out an ad for a drummer, I just wrote: 'Need drummer.' It's guitar music, but I wouldn't know what else to say."

Let's just say that Bardo Pond's brand of ear-crushing, guitar-fueled noise skonk treads the line somewhere between the proto-heavy-metal bands of the late '60s/early '70s (think MC5) and the NYC avant-music scene of the mid-'80s (think Sonic Youth). Still, pieces are missing there. Like the freeform jazz influence and its ability to stretch a six-minute song to twice that length.

Devotees of the free music school ("Because none of us knew how to play," Gibbons explains), Bardo Pond formed five years ago to play "free guitar music within a rock context." Adds Gibbons, "We were into other things, like Can and the Velvet Underground, but we had no idea what we were doing. So we got into 'no wave' music, like Arto Lindsay. But it always wound up seriously rhythmic anyway. And Black Sabbath was always lurking in the back. I think once we got better amps and stuff, that really came out."

Its fifth album, Set and Setting (Matador Records), is Bardo Pond's most expansive. From Michael and brother John Gibbons' dual guitar attack to bassist Clint Takeda and drummer Joe Culver's creeping back rhythm, the eight songs that make up the first album recorded in their home studio are delivered as blistering packs of droning, oozing musical Prozac. Singer-flautist Isobel Sollenberger is almost an instrument herself.

"It's amazing how her singing affects the songs," Gibbons says. "She sings like nobody else. The way she sings when we're practicing definitely affects the flow and which way the song is going. It's the way she approaches a song -- she doesn't sing with the chord. She drowns across it in a strange way."

And that's never as strong as it is on Set and Setting's 11-minute opener, "Walking Stick Man." The song builds, drops, builds and drops continuously, adding different elements to the mix with each step. "That tune actually went through a lot of transformations before it wound up in the version that's on the record," Gibbons explains. "We hadn't played in a while and had taken a long break. We were playing that song for a while and practicing it and getting it together to the way we liked it. We didn't play together for like a month and a half, and got together one night and played it. And the take we did that night is the one on the album. We had this real energy from being excited to play it. And I still can't figure out the way I played the guitar leads on it. I'm just approximating it now."

Set and Setting was recorded over a nine-month period, and Gibbons says that the improvisational stew that fans seem to think Bardo Pond consistently cooks up really did serve as a mini-muse this time around. He points out that the album ended up being "a surprise to us, because a lot of songs that we thought would be on the record didn't wind up on it, and a lot of new stuff that just kind of popped up did wind up on it. I think at heart that the record is really closer to what we really are like, as opposed to just going into a studio and recording songs that were all ready to go for an album."

Which explains the abundance of six- and nine-minute songs on the album.

"It's definitely looser," Gibbons says, laughing. "I guess they ended up like that because some of the takes were that long, and we decided to use them instead of trying to do a tighter version." However, Gibbons adds, don't expect Phishlike jam sessions onstage. Songs have been pared down to acceptable lengths (unlike some of the early clumsy performances from the band).

"The stage definitely has gotten more comfortable," he says. "It's a real rush playing in front of people. You really do get that energy from people. But we can really go nuts in the studio. New things happen all the time. Both situations are getting better. After all this time, we still get off on it."

Even if Psychedelphia's most perceptive indie combo hasn't come to terms with the psychedelic drug band label that follows it around, Gibbons says Bardo Pond has accepted its good fortune and has even learned a lesson or two along the way.

"We've really learned to just trust ourselves, to go into these different directions," Gibbons concludes. "We've also learned to be nicer to each other. We've become more and more intuitive. Everything just flows a lot faster. Our songs are simple, but there's always a little weird thing to them. It just gets better and better, man."

Bardo Pond is scheduled to perform on Saturday, November 27, at Modified, with Radar Brothers, and Full Moon on a Half Day. Showtime is 9 p.m.