Bong-Ra – Meditations Review

As some of you might have guessed from my unsubtly Nietzschean moniker, I like philosophy.1 That’s why upon spotting Bong-Ra’s Meditations in the swirling chaos of the promo sump, I had to have it. The album is a tribute to the posthumously-titled Stoic writings of Marcus Aurelius, each of the four tracks named after the Stoic virtues “Courage,” “Wisdom,” “Justice,” and “Temperance.” Naturally, I took this as an opportunity to immerse myself not only in new music, but in Stoic philosophy. (Which I promise I won’t bore you with here). As it turns out, Bong-Ra spent the first twenty years of their existence making breakcore electronic music. Recently, however, founding member Jason Köhnen (also behind Celestial Season and The Answer Lies in the Black Void) has made an about-turn towards doom. A strange, instrumental, bass-dominated, sax-infused doom no less.

Meditations is entirely instrumental, making its ties to Stoicism purely conceptual and giving the music the task of evocation. I’m not entirely sure I’d pick Stoicism if I heard this blind and had to guess what philosophical school it was channeling. However, it’s certainly suited to deep mental exploration both of the intellectual and mind-altering varieties. Omnipresent feedback and cavernously echoing percussion create a dark, thick blanket of noise. Over this, eerie, mournful saxophone, lilting oud, and sprinklings of chimes lend everything a mystical air. The overall conjured scene is of lying in a dim, smoke-filled room, incense filling your nose as the ayahuasca brew gradually starts to kick in. Maybe you’re contemplating how to act virtuously in accordance with your rational nature2 while you lie there. Maybe you’re just absorbing that bewitching soundscape. Because however, you enjoy it, this just sounds bloody brilliant.

With a superficially simplistic palette, Bong-Ra paints an immersive and alluring canvas that evolves and shifts without you noticing. Sedate musing lapses into odd, free-jazz-esque, squeaky-saxophone, scattering-percussion tumbling (“Courage,” “Wisdom,” “Temperance”). It’s easy to lose oneself in the smooth, yet strangely urgent melodies weaving their way across the album. These are beautiful not just in the straightforwardly aesthetically pleasing sense, but because of the intelligent way they are applied. Bong-Ra demonstrates a powerful proficiency for tension release. They draw in curtains of noise darkened by what seem to be low, distorted shrieks (“Temperance”), fade to silence (“Justice”) or pure-bass noise broken only by gong-like percussive heartbeats. Then a saxophone, oud, or guitar rises out of the mire, and layers upon layers of melody, subtly backed by piano, (“Courage,” “Justice”) surge to powerful apexes. Bong-Ra also use volume to control the atmosphere. In what are surely intentional choices, musical elements will individually grow louder and softer, and seem to rise and fall in the mix (“Courage,” “Justice”), creating a pulsing sense of psychedelic placelessness—particularly with headphones in.

The album’s ritualistic aura is amplified in the ebb-and-flow of tracks that causes it to feel like one whole, a ceremony with highs and lows. “Temperance” exemplifies this most strongly, with its glittering chimes and scattered clean plucking that lurches into an almost-stressful erraticism amplified by strange moans, before fading out with a melancholic melody and breathy exhales. The near-oriental sound that creeps into the lilting refrains of “Justice” and “Temperance,” also lends Meditations a ceremonial air that only adds to the immersion (although some may find those chimes a tiny bit too much). In all, it’s the knife-cutably thick atmosphere that seals the deal, thanks not only to the omnipresent bass, but the gorgeous saxophone (Colin Webster) and crashing, reverberating percussion (Eugene Bodenstaff) that pierce its depths. Meditations is also the perfect length. Barely exceeding thirty-seven minutes, it’s just long enough to draw you in, but not long enough to tire you out.

For a subject matter and style that on paper sounds a bit niche, Bong-Ra have created something quite accessible, and incredibly affective. Meditations is dark, dreamy, and entrancing. Perhaps I’d even say it’s bold, clever, sincere, and balanced. In any case, this is certainly one way to expand your mind.

Rating: Excellent
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Tartarus Records
Releases Worldwide: August 5th, 2022

Show 2 footnotes

  1. I actually have a Master’s in it, to shamelessly toot my own horn.
  2. Sorry, that’s the only time I’ll talk about it.
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