Christopher Bono spent his early life devoted to baseball and was even drafted by the Seattle Mariners before an injury prevented him from playing, but it’s this music that he really knocks out of the park. This is an artist just totally hitting his stride. I feel like I haven’t even experienced enough in life to fully appreciate an album like this; music that is powerful and humble and confronts the spiritual and the unknowable beginning from a place of absolute desperation.
Bono’s narrative for Bardo draws heavily from Tarot (specifically “The Fool”) as well as the Tibetan Book of the Dead to share the surreal journey of The Fool as he moves through a cycle of loss — from intense sorrow toward the afterlife and eventually rebirth. (“Bardo” translates from Tibetan as “the transition.”)
The story is told in four movements, with preludes before each meant to suggest “ambient portals” acting as passages to the next chapter of The Fool’s journey. “Bardo I: Enter the Mystic” invites you in with a drone and then quickly jumps to a stormy, chaotic yearning before, as the liner notes indicate, our protagonist is driven to “face the churning storm of dark destiny emanating from his own mind.”
The listener soon finds herself in “Bardo II: The End of the Oligarchs,” a musically jagged, violent, thumping battle that ends abruptly before everything, including the life of The Fool, is destroyed and gives way to the calm sounds of water. “It is The Fool passing from his earthly end into what the Tibetans call the Chönyid Bardo, or the state between lives… He begins a spiraling journey through the hallucinations and obstacles inside this labyrinth of karmic repercussions.” In “Bardo III: Enter the Void,” his offenses and virtues are weighed by the deities and the music takes on a militant tone before swelling, swelling, swelling, and then bursting into silence as The Fool learns to trust his own inner wisdom and thus is liberated. Here the music carries him rhythmically to a place above and beyond the darkness of doubt and we hear the euphonious expression of prayers for our Fool from those who remain in the physical plane.
At this point we have listened to The Fool’s odyssey from despair to destruction, destruction to death, and death to liberation. Before entering Bardo IV, we are treated to “Endless Doors to Endless Wombs,” which is this reviewer’s favorite of all the preludes. The beautiful, meditative piece lasts for a blissful seven minutes and, if you close your eyes and turn up the volume, it might feel like you’re floating.
The Fool finally enters “Bardo IV: Clouds Blooming at the Thought of Union,” which tells of his rebirth by way of gentle, pulsing sounds that cycle, crescendo, and decrescendo until there is only silence and our protagonist begins his story anew.
When I had this album playing at home, several friends commented on how “epic” it felt. And that’s true. If you didn’t read the liner notes or have any frame of reference for Bono’s inspiration, it could totally sound like the soundtrack for an amazing RPG or fantasy film. Played straight through it is like a saga told in sound and the fact that you may not know the details doesn’t stop you from connecting to, understanding, and enjoying it. That’s really saying something. The fact that this is sixty minutes of extremely dense material yet it remains approachable from start to finish (or should I say rebirth?) is quite a feat. Listening with headphones and the volume cranked up was like ! in my heart and I didn’t just appreciate the experience, but also the experience of the experience if that makes any sense.