Bombadil: Building Us a Pyramid
A resurgence in sales of vinyl records has been brought about by music aficionados who tout a depth of sound superior to more modern music delivery systems and prefer a tangible product over digital downloads. There are also those collectors who appreciate the cover art as much as the recording itself.
Record Store Day, which has been held on the third Saturday of April for the past seven years, is an international recognition and celebration of the bastions of vinyl, and 2014 saw a huge turnout for this event. So, what better vehicle than vinyl to commemorate the re-issue of an album by Bombadil, a band that has also experienced setbacks and recovery?
In the summer of 2009, Bombadil’s fans eagerly awaited the release of their second full-length CD for Ramseur Records: Tarpits and Canyonlands. Reviewers predicted this album would elevate the Durham-based band to the next level. But, suddenly, their musical momentum didn’t just put on brakes; it was completely derailed.
Bassist Daniel Michalak had been plagued with aching arms caused by neural tension for two years, but he had played through the ever-increasing pain until his hands failed him. And, on the last day of recording Tarpits, keyboard player Stuart Robinson announced he was leaving the band to pursue other interests.
Resting his stubborn hands in hope of recovery, Daniel continued to sing with the band as he and remaining bandmates -- guitarist Bryan Rahija and drummer James Phillips -- adapted arrangements and tried to continue. Stuart was persuaded to play one more last show, then another last show. But it was all difficult and exhausting. It became apparent they would not be performing a release show to usher in their new album, nor would they be touring to promote it.
The advent of Tarpits did not go uncelebrated. On July 11, 2009, in the band’s home-base city of Durham, N.C., a party was held to introduce the new album at the Golden Belt, a renovated tobacco warehouse turned event center. The gala was free and open to the public and included food and drinks, ping pong, performances by Durham musicians from bands Luego and the Tender Fruit, and an invasion by Scene of the Crime Rovers -- a raucous, improvisational marching band of which Bombadil’s Bryan was a member.
The celebration also featured an art show. Illustrator Robbi Behr of Idiots’ Books had created not only CD cover art for Tarpits and Canyonlands; she produced an illustration to accompany each track. These were coupled with the song lyrics in a booklet packaged with the CD. The original paintings were were on display that night gallery-style and available for purchase. (Check out Idiots’ Books ).
There were raffle prizes and thank-yous. Then it was time to hear Bombadil’s latest opus, the reason for the party. Tarpits and Canyonlands was played over speakers, but instead of listening in rapt attention, partygoers returned to talking and eating and drinking and celebrating the musical work which had, unfortunately, been relegated to background music.
This does not reflect the quality of the album, but has more to do with the habits of today’s society. Recorded music is so omnipresent, most people just treat it as part of their environment, and usually go on with their business -- or in this case, partying -- without really paying attention to the music they are hearing. Sadly, this habit has also become more and more common in the the case of live performances.
So, it was a somewhat anticlimactic finish to a bittersweet celebration, a “sad birthday,” which, interestingly, is the title of what has become one of the most popular songs on Tarpits:
In the hall we're celebrating what is called ‘sad birthday.’
You're the host, it's up to you to make the toast on this cursed day...
Bombadil fans had already heard, and clamored for, many of the songs on this album in previous live performances. There was a loyal group of listeners eager to buy Tarpits and Canyonlands, and there were appreciative reviews. But, with no tour, it was difficult to gain new listeners and sales.
A video posted on Bombadil’s YouTube channel a year later featured dozens of unopened Tarpits CDs in stop-action animation, arranging themselves like building blocks in different patterns to the sound of the CD’s opening song, “I Am:”
lost in the sand
building you a pyramid
It felt so wistful: a year-old box full of unfulfilled potential in each cellophane-wrapped disc. The video ends enigmatically with a bunch of belts slithering across and tangling like snakes, obliterating the CD pyramid.
The band members had scattered geographically while Daniel pursued healing with zeal, trying numerous therapies and gradually mending.
The compositional process of Bombadil has always been highly collaborative, but each member has their distinctive musical stamp. Their albums are collections of surprising and disparate song creations, not just because they experiment with numerous genres and instruments, but because of the varying contributions of the individual band members.
To say their albums are like puzzles with the band members each contributing pieces would not be a good illustration since the pieces of a puzzle don’t usually stand alone as art work, but are only useful when contributing to the final result. Each member of Bombadil is perfectly capable of functioning independently as a successful songwriter.
A better analogy for Bombadil is chocolate cheese cake. Chocolate is wonderful all by itself. Cream cheese is versatile and independently delicious. Eggs have been called “Nature’s perfect food.” And graham crackers can be fully appreciated without being ground into a crust. These ingredients don’t depend on each other to make people happy. But when you mix them all together into a chocolate cheese cake you have something quite tasty and special.
While separated, the band members did not stop creating songs and growing as musicians and poets, and they stayed in touch. Then, to the delight of their fans, they emerged from hiatus with an album in tow: All That the Rain Promises. Stuart had returned to the fold, and Daniel was making a remarkable recovery. They spent 10 days in a barn in Oregon’s Happy Valley recording this simpler, well-crafted album, and reviews were good.
The band found the book All That the Rain Promises and More: a Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms in the Oregon barn, and appropriated its hopeful title for their album since their storm had passed.
In summer 2013, the Bombadil renaissance continued with the release of another album, Metrics of Affection. There were video premieres in Paste and Rolling Stone. They were interviewed on NPR’s “Weekend Edition. They have returned to touring and full-time music-making, and recently signed on to High Road Touring’s impressive roster.
Even though Bryan’s guitar and voice are still integral parts of the last two albums, in the midst of the comeback he stopped performing with the band in order to attend graduate school. Perhaps Bombadil’s past travails helped them better learn to adapt; they shape-shifted into a trio, re-arranged past songs and continued on their way.
A growing fan base from the successes of Bombadil’s last two albums has also helped bring renewed interest in Tarpits and Canyonlands. Ramseur Records has announced that they are celebrating the fifth anniversary of the album by re-releasing the CD, plus they are pulling out all the stops, making the album available in an impressive vinyl package.
According to the description on the band’s website, the package includes two 180 gram, colored 12-inch vinyl discs re-mastered from the original analog tapes direct to 24/96 at 45rpm, producing the highest sound quality possible. The discs are housed in a custom triple-jacket gatefold with string closure holding 14 art prints on high-quality matte paper, suitable for framing. The package also includes a full album download, with a bonus: the song including “Barcelona” which was recorded during the Tarpits sessions but not previously released.
Songs from Tarpits have been popular mainstays of Bombadil’s set lists throughout their comeback. The plaintive “Reasons” and the perceptive “Marriage” have been heard often, the latter even covered in a video by Scott Avett. The exuberant “Oto the Bear” has delighted listeners and had its own popular t-shirt. “So Many Ways to Die,” which is actually a profound argument for life, has had a life beyond the concert stage thanks to a clever video .
The song “Honeymoon” may be the band’s biggest hit to date, with the most downloads and its frequent position as grand finale of many Bombadil shows. Its clever lyrics are coupled with musical scoring that steadily builds in intensity and excitement, bringing audiences to their feet to dance, or in ovations demanding encores.
In 2009, the opening track “I Am” seemed to suggest a lost artifact. In 2014, we can appreciate the brief “I Am” more as a motivic and minimalistic prelude to the song “Pyramid” at the album’s apex. And “Pyramid” sounds like a prediction of, or metaphor for, Bombadil’s resurgence:
...building you a pyramid
lost in the sand, lost in the sand
nomads they will find you
your locks will never hold
prophets will forget you
history is painted gold
Those prophets who foresaw the demise of Bombadil and wrote them off were wrong. Listeners wandering in a musical desert happened upon Bombadil and were rewarded with treasure.
Egypt’s ancient pyramids have weathered storms and are still around because they were built on solid foundations, and the walls support each other, pointing upward. Bombadil is still standing for similar reasons, aiming toward the stars.
photo by Todd Cooper