The earliest documented description of a bonnacon comes from the first century AD, in Pliny the Elder’s early encyclopedia Naturalis Historia. In the entry, the Roman naturalist describes the beast as a wild animal known as a ‘bonasus’, “which has the mane of a horse, but in all other respects resembles a bull; its horns are curved back in such a manner as to be of no use for fighting, and it is said that because of this it saves itself by running away, meanwhile emitting a trail of dung that sometimes covers a distance of as much as three furlongs, contact with which scorches pursuers like a sort of fire.” The idea of a horned beast emitting plumes of burning faeces gained popularity in medieval times when bonnacons came to be listed more regularly in ‘bestiaries’, their mythical status embraced as an apocryphal tale to warn city dwellers of the perils of unknown beasts roaming the fields.
There’s very little similarity between this depiction of a legendary creature and the masked and cloaked collective BONNACONS OF DOOM: you can hardly term their musical output as acidic dung, nor do any of them have horns. But there is a shared air of mystery around both entities, as though you’re not quite sure where the myth begins or ends. Trying to unpick the truth from the legend is futile and is an unnecessary diversion when it comes to enjoying the white-knuckle ride that is a Bonnacons happening.
The Bonnacons Of Doom story began in 2013, with various former members of innovative electronica troupe Hive Collective coalescing with assorted academics and seasoned musicians from the psych world. Their original outings came as the de facto, in-house noise collective at Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia, when they specialised in drone-laden missives that flirted with the margins of jazz, space rock and technotronica. Since then they have morphed through various iterations, spinning an increasingly dense web of spiritually-inflected, shadowy psych across each manifestation. Not content with laying down monstrous slabs of cyclical riffage, in only their third or fourth outing they indulged in some test tube-based audio experimentation to fit in with the setting of Eindhoven Psych Lab, starting a trend of context-specific performances. In 2014 they performed a celestial drone piece titled PZYKSONG as Bonnacons Of Light in the Anglican Cathedral, joined by the cathedral’s choir and riffing on the communal nature of Evensong. The following year the cloaks and mirror masks appeared as the troupe took to the woods for a set at Supernormal, the audience gathered around as they teased meditative drones from an assortment of gongs and singing bowls. For Halloween last year they reverted to a choir set-up as they took to the stage in 24 Kitchen Street as the 13-strong Electric Mantra Band, in what they termed a “destroy ensemble performance”.
Throughout these Bonnacons variations, a common thread of ritualism and spirituality has remained, which is mirrored in the earthy, organic throbs of noise that echo through all of their work. This is confirmed in a rare missive from the group’s spokesperson, a mouthpiece we’re told is ‘Rob’. “The ritualistic [element] is central to what we do. For us, performance exists as this space which is other to everyday life and allows us to access something primal.”
The hooded black cloaks and circular masks that are now the trademark Bonnacons uniform have come to define this air of mysticism, with the added benefit that they’re free to mix and match their members whenever they please. The revolving line-up behind the masks has meant that the overarching Bonnacons sound has never been in danger of getting stale and comfortable; but with so many possibilities, do we even know who the real Bonnacons Of Doom are?
“Initially… we were interested in how British ritualistic costume took things from everyday life and make them otherworldly and slightly grotesque,” the spokesperson explains. “Whatever line-up is playing, once you put on the mask you’re a Bonnacon.”
Once you get beyond the novelty of the disguises, you soon realise their true importance. Unlike tribalistic Swedish firebrands Goat, Bonnacons’ plain garb gives them anonymity, stripping away any personalised character from the performance and allowing you to focus solely on the music. In this way the disguises make our relationship with the music so much less complicated; our experience of the music is purer, a communication that takes us beyond language. Again, this harks back to a collective more in tune with nature than you first think, relating to a more primitive form of humanity that was perhaps better at communicating as it relied on body language and more subtle, non-verbal signals. This is a topic that Bonnacon ‘Rob’ is keen to expand on.
“I was brought up in a religious sect and, in my childhood, the house was often full of people singing and speaking in tongues. Reflecting on it now, I think those people were reaching to get out of themselves, to get beyond language. Music is used as a force of control and cohesion in religion – it takes people out of themselves by producing different states of consciousness.
“From the beginning, we’ve been really interested in the transformative possibilities of music. How it has the power to make us – and the audience – at that particular moment into something else. Whether that’s being in a trance-like state, being blissed out or just annoying people, there’s something that’s physical and mental that we want to change in people. In particular, we’ve tried to work with repetition, volume and texture rather than traditional song structures.”
After years of being a live-based entity experimenting with situation and setting, Bonnacons Of Doom have finally committed to tape a brooding hymnal of feedback-ecstasy. Their debut album, self-titled, is getting its release on Rocket Recordings, alongside fellow purveyors of towering drone symphonies Teeth Of The Sea, Gnod and Hey Colossus. Recorded with Hookworms’ MJ at his Suburban Home studio, Bonnacons Of Doom is a transcendental suite of music that isn’t bound by things as trivial as genre or style; texture leads the way, via heavily distorted whoops of trombone and washes of crashing cymbals. Opener Solus leads us gently into the humming abyss, the lone vocal soon giving way to an ominous marching beat. The ritual takes on a different tone with Argenta, mystic Eastern winds billowing through the nagging interplay between guitars and electronics. Industria has a lighter feel than the rest of the LP, with zen-like chants and echoing gongs caught on the breeze. It would be easy to get caught up in comparisons with the occult when describing these vibrations in the Bonnacons ether, but there is none of the black magick weirdness or cod spiritualism at play here. As Bonnacon ‘Rob’ points out, the group’s motives aren’t driven by a desire to find meaning through someone else’s mythology, but to help you find your own.
“The album is full of found sound from different religious traditions buried in the mix. By using that cut-up approach we want to be the opposite of controlling; we want people to project what’s important to them on the experience, to create their own ritualistic meanings.”
Situation and setting is just as key to this studio iteration of the group, which the group’s spokesperson confirms is a constant source of inspiration. “I guess our environment is another key influence. We’re almost all from Lancashire and Yorkshire, and the landscape and mythology of the North is part of who we are. Its darkness and beauty, the weirdness of its folk traditions, the independence of mind of its culture and the melancholy of its post-industrial grain.”
The guitar squall on Rhizome sprawls across a barrage of drums like a mass of roots, re-setting the earthbound focus of the album’s two closing tracks. It’s the oldest song on this album and is probably the biggest signifier of a signature Bonnacons sound – for now at least. Album closer Plantae is the most pagan-sounding of all of them, with exhortations from vocalist Kate joining the clamour of the distortion and feedback from a band channelling both The Wicker Man and the Butthole Surfers.
Yet, for all of its references to nature, there’s still a classic stoner rock edge to Bonnacons Of Doom, tempered by a different kind of narcotic influence, more hedonistic and freewheeling. “Acid house is where we’ve come from as people, a kind of collective memory in the band,” confirms ‘Rob’. “It’s a sensibility. The abandonment to the moment, the fucked-up, out of control perfection of giving yourself over to the absolute now. Those are the feelings that were formative in our relationship to music and that’s what we’re always chasing when we’re playing.”
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect about this LP is the journey the group have taken to get to it. It’s a success for experimentation, a vindication for not sitting on your laurels, a rallying cry against crowd-sourced, technology-dominated creativity. What’s more, it’s a reflection of our own traditions and beliefs and lets us look back at our own complicated relationship with religion and spirituality.
No machine or algorithm could ever conjure up the kind of noise that Bonnacons Of Doom make, which is why their album is not just a celebration of their own humanity, but all of ours, too. Look into the mirror mask and don’t see what you’re told to see, see what your soul wants you to see.
Bonnacons Of Doom is out now via Rocket Recordings.