Of all the alternative music Philadelphia has made and makes, some of its best has been its strangest and most oblique -- two acts with similarities in sibling fire-starters, time of origin, and commitment to cause: Bardo Pond and Stinking Lizaveta.
As influenced by Faust as they were by Sun Ra, Bardo Pond's John and Michael Gibbons started making spidery drone-rock-meets-freak-folk in 1992 in Northern Liberties. With Bardo still intact (rounded out by Clint Takeda, Isobel Sollenberger, and Joe Culver), the airily psychedelic quintet last week released its hypnotic new album, Under the Pines.
Around the same time, in 1994, West Philly's Brothers Karamazov -- Yanni and Alexi Papadopoulos – with Cheshire Agusta, began their brooding brand of thrash-jazz and doom-metal influenced by Black Flag and Black Sabbath. That same wild all-instrumental trio are still together and are to release their new album, Journey to the Underworld, with a gig Friday at Johnny Brenda's.
Though as different in texture and sound as cheese from chocolate, Michael Gibbons' Bardo and Yanni Papadopoulos' StinkLiz have rich similarities in how they have traversed the musical landscape, locally and internationally.
"It was an exciting time," Gibbons said of Bardo's start, "Sonic Youth at its zenith, Public Enemy the end-all-be-all, Neil Young's extreme Crazy Horse shows, My Bloody Valentine -- bands that were 'famous' who were actually decent." Along with Gibbons celebrating then-local alternative totems Philadelphia Record Exchange, WKDU, the Siltbreeze label, and Brother JT ("our close neighbor, ain't a bad thing"), Takeda says that theirs is "an inner world, oblivious to the outside, maintaining its own laws of physics, their very own bardo, if you will. This is the price of sonic bliss."
Yanni Papadopoulos talks about StinkLiz's 1990s as a period of DIY discovery and inexpensive brews. "We threw caution to the wind, subscribed to a life of cheap bikes and cheap beer," he says with a laugh, recalling $1.50 pints of Porter at the 40th Street Underground near their 42nd and Ludlow rehearsal space.
"Brian Dilworth, who was booking the Khyber, released our first albums. Steve Albini recorded our first record. We got adopted by different scenes: punks calling us hippies, hippies calling us metal, metal-heads calling us punks. It feels good taking stock in the momentum of those early days. Now, sometime,s when I see pictures of myself playing, I scream, 'Why is Richard Nixon playing my guitar?' "
Gibbons and Takeda see Bardo as one continuous line of intense gauzy aestheticism with occasional speed bumps. "The sound hasn't changed, but, rather, increased in detail, so I agree with you, it's become more textural," Takeda says. "I noticed live, too, that we've become more patient performing tunes and letting the minimal sections really ring in on itself or push the noisy sections with aggression, knowing when to step on parts with relish."
With Stinking Lizaveta, noise and brutal beauty are the name of the game – it just gets rawer.
"I used to just plug the guitar into my amp and play. No effects, only amp distortion. I wanted listeners to feel the friction of the strings against the fretboard. Any interruption of that signal was a diminishment of direct communication from my fingers to your brain. Then, I found the secret to Prince's sound was that he always had the wah pedal on … so I kept mine on, adjusted my amp's EQ to accommodate that, added delay pedals because I love surf and [Bauhaus'] Daniel Ash, and a tremolo bar, 'cause I love Hendrix. ... Recently I went back to zero. The pendulum swings."
From the sound of things, both bands' longtime relationships, on and off stage, are flourishing. While Yanni and Cheshire (once married) socialize together and work as teachers at the School of Rock, all members of Bardo Pond interact due to each one's involvement as art installers at local institutions such as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Philadelphia International Airport.
"My theory is that because we gave up relentlessly touring the U.S. early on, stuck in a van for weeks on end, we avoided that 'no return' point of toxic dysfunctional hatred of loved ones," says Takeda. The same is true of StinkLiz.
While Bardo Pond's Under the Pines personifies where the unified band is now – jam session-eers carefully allowing songs to blossom organically ("continuing on, researching cacophonic epiphanies," says Gibbons) -- Stinking Lizaveta's Journey to the Underworld is the realization of a fantasy held by Papadopoulos of an album recorded in New Orleans with a feel as epic and alluring as that Southern city.
"What keeps us going is a sense that the story isn't over and the well isn't dry," says Papadopoulos. "We still have the physical strength to play rock-and-roll, the intellectual curiosity to continue to create, and with one powerful talent that we've mysteriously always possessed: our ability to get people to clap at the end of a tune."