Saturday, June 04, 2011

Boris' "Attention Please" and "Heavy Rocks"

What's Boris up to now? And more to the point, can it really have been three years since Smile arrived, in a confusion of American and Japanese vinyl and CD formats, all of which included different track lists, even different mixes or versions of the some of the songs? And then there was their performance at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studio, which wouldn't even have been possible if the Gloves' owner hadn't gotten his ear bitten off at a Boris show (in another town) on their previous tour.

The Gloves has the most skewed stage-to-room ratio of any rawk dump I've ever seen besides the late lamented Wreck Room, and when you added (or subtracted) the substantial merch area, you had a lot of freaks, most of 'em musos that knew each other, packed into a very small space. No matter. 'Twas a transcendent experience, the best show I've seen since the "Ann Arbor revival meeting" back in 2002 and definitely all-time top-ten material for your humble chronicler o' events. My sweetie 'n' I spent all of Boris' set -- about an hour and a half -- standing 15 feet in front of guest guitarist Michio Kurihara's chained Twins, in pure bliss.

Tiny slip-of-a-girl Wata remained completely immobile behind her Les Paul while the bank of Marshalls behind her sang pure Sturm und Drang; to her left, Takeshi -- he of the double-necked bass-and-guitar combo -- towered majestically while hiding his mug behind a curtain of hair; at their backs, leader Atsuo controlled the universe from behind his drumkit and headset mic. When it was over, Jon Teague -- who first pulled my coat to Boris by handing me a burned copy of Akuma No Uta when he was working door at the aforementioned Wreck Room and I was trying to make a living freelancing for the FW Weekly -- walked up to us, realized we weren't wearing earplugs, and walked away shaking his head. "Oh, you crazy kids."

Boris is, without a doubt, my favorite band of the last decade, and they have it all over their countrymen in bands like Acid Mothers Temple, Fushitsusha, High Rise, even the vaunted Les Rallizes Denudes, because all of said bands are, to one degree or another, one trick ponies without an ounce of melodic sense between the lot of 'em. Although each of 'em can, in their own way, kick up an impressive racket, there's not a lot to compel repeated listenings unless you're more of a monomaniac than I am.

Unlike those others, Boris gives you more: droney sludge-fests, outbursts of pummeling punkoid mania, spacey Floydian soundscapes, and extended shoegaze freakouts. Their discography includes album-length epic opuses (Flood and Feedbacker) as well as collections of more concise pieces (Heavy Rocks, Pink, the aforementioned Akuma No Uta). They've collaborated with like-minded folks as diverse as noisemeister Merzbow, doom-drone messiahs Sunn o))), and psych guitar master Michio Kurihara (my fave axe-slinger of the last decade, along with Nels Cline).

Smile was, in a sense, a summation of all the directions they'd pursued to date, with some interesting production touches (the dance-music mix of "Statement" that opened the Japanese version, f'rinstance). This year, as they approach their 20th year as a band (formed in '92 by singer/comically diminutive rockstar incarnate Atsuo, who assumed drum duties in '96), they went '91 Guns 'N' Roses/'92 Springsteen/'02 Tom Waits one better by releasing three, count 'em, _three_ albums simultaneously, two of which I have in rotation on my CD player as I type this. The other one, the prosaically-entitled New Album, is a Japanese-only release which shares four tracks ("Party Boy," "Hope," "Spoon," and "Dark Guitar" aka "Les Paul Custom '86") with Attention Please and two ("Jackson Head" and "Tu, la la") with Heavy Rocks.

To be clear, that new Heavy Rocks is _not_ the reissue of the 2002 album of the same name that I originally took it to be (even the cover art is similar, except in purple rather than the original orange); it's an album of all new material. (And could these guys not win the Truth In Advertising award for album titles? Jeez!) The head-banging "Riot Sugar" opens the proceedings with devil signs thrust high and the Cult's Ian Astbury standing in for Chris Cornell, Atsuo's relentless kick-snare-cymbal action, and Wata's thick-toned, reverb-drenched leads. The curiously-titled "Leak -Truth, yesnoyesnoyes-" alternates a spare minimalist pop -- almost Police-like -- with Boris' signature raging rawk. "GALAXIANS" opens with video game noises, then it's a pure punk explosion, complete with two-beat polka. "Missing Pieces" is the first of two long (12-minute-plus) songs that are the album's peaks, in this case a slow and moody one like Smile's "Flower Sun Rain," showcasing the band's command of dynamics.

Listening to "Tu, la la," one can't help noticing that Takeshi's vocals are mixed higher than usual, and there are actual guitar hooks. While the music's as intense and hard-edged as ever, it's also a reminder that the Boris musos jokingly referred to Smile in the press as their "sell out album" (although their idea of what's commercial is probably as skewed as, say, the Minutemen's was with Project Mersh). But it leads into "Aileron," which is the same sort of powerful, emotion-filled two-chord drone 'n' feedback fest as, say, Pink's "Just Abandoned Myself" or Smile's untitled closing number; like those two, it's a genuine soul rinsing. (There's a faster, acoustic version of "Aileron" on Attention Please.) Then they take it out with a minute and a half of unmitigated heaviosity they call "Czechoslovakia." While Boris isn't exactly pushing back any boundaries with their new Heavy Rocks, they demonstrate once again their mastery of heavy music.

Attention Please is something else again. For one thing, Wata does all the singing here, but don't get the idea that this is a cynical attempt to launch her as a pop diva. Many of the same sonic elements as always are present, but here the sound mix is frequently less dense than one would expect from a Boris record. For example, "Party Boy" (not to be confused with the Me-Thinks' song of the same name) is mixed like a dance track, with the kick drum and blorp-bleep electronics prominent. What differentiates it from yer typical dance club fare, though, is Takeshi's elephantine bass line. "See You Next Week" overlays Wata's dream-like vocal and guitar on a bed of pulsing static. On "Tokyo Wonder Land," rattling percussion is brought to the forefront and a monstro fuzz bass line is buried in the background. On "You," pretty much the whole track works off Wata's breathy, close-mic'ed vocal, sparse percussion, and layers of electronics that swirl and sizzle.

"Les Paul Custom '86" is like a cutup of garage rock rifferama and musique concrete weirdness, but it leads into "Spoon," a bracing blast of chordal thunder and forward motion that's as close to a "rock anthem" as Boris has written, with Wata's vocal wa-a-ay up front, the whole thing mixed trebly and hot. "Hand in Hand" is like an abbreviated version of your archetypal Boris album-closing freakout, reduced to four minutes and change of Wata's lullabye-like vocal, tremeloed guitar, and feedback echoes. All in all, it's a daring experiment; sometimes the biggest risk a successful artist can take is in alienating their audience by surprising them. What this might mean for the future of Boris, we can only guess, but until next time, there's plenty to be intrigued by here.


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