BORIS – Smile (DIW/Southern Lord)
Since I stopped scribing for the Bar on a regular (some would say obsessive) basis, I’ve been through some changes: discovering a whole world of music local to my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas (where the West begins) - including Bar-friendly outfits like the Me-Thinks, the Fellow Americans, One Fingered Fist, Barrel Delux, Shotgun Messenger, Great American Novel, and even a Velvets to Voidoids-era "repertory band" that I play in (um, that'd be Stoogeaphilia) – and getting my head bent by '60s-through-right-now sounds originating in my ancestral homeland of Japan like Flower Travellin' Band, Blues Creation, Les Rallizes Denudes, High Rise, and much more.
Having my coat pulled to all these Japanese rawkers had an impact on my psyche equivalent to rediscovering the Detroit idols of my yoof in the mid-'90s, or getting turned onto the whole Birdman/Saints Oz development a few years later. Among said Nipponese crews, Boris are by far the best of the bunch, so much so that their latest album "Smile" has been my pick for the best album of 2008 since I first heard it back in February.
Boris took their name from a Melvins song and first surfaced in the late '90s with a pair of epic sludge-and-drone fests, Absolutego and Amplifier Worship (both of which evoke comparisons with fellow Melvins fans Sleep’s monolithic "Jerusalem" aka "Dopesmoker"). They went on to demonstrate propensities for spacey ambience with 2000's "Flood"; slammin', thrashin' Stoogian punk ramalama with 2002's "Heavy Rocks"; and Floydian heavy psych with 2003's "Feedbacker". The shorter and more varied albums "Akuma No Uta" and "Pink" broke them in the States, but even mass-ass acceptance in their own country didn't stop them from recording with iconic noisicians Keiji Haino and Merzbow, or putting out a doom-metal simulacrum of the Flaming Lips' "Zaireeka" (two discs that are supposed to be played at the same time) called "Dronevil".
An ongoing collaboration with master psych guitarist Michio Kurihara (White Heaven, Stars, Ghost, Damon and Naomi) began with 2006's "Rainbow" and continued with "Smile" and their most recent U.S. tour (where I stood directly in front of Kurihara-san’s stacked Fender Twins in a sweaty north Texas rawk dump for an-hour-and-a-half and was blissfully hearing impaired for three days afterward).
They're quite something onstage, the three of them: standing stage right, a tee-tiny girl named Wata plays a black Les Paul that's almost as tall as she is, standing stock-still in front of her Orange stack while churning up welters of pulverizing sound; up front, the relatively-towering Takeshi sings while playing a double-necked guitar-and-bass combo, his face hidden behind cascades of hair; in back, white-gloved bandleader Atsuo orchestrates things from behind his drum kit, wearing a headset mic, coming out at the end of the set to crowd-surf like it was '96 again or something. They're all tremendous. With Kurihara applying the sting on his Japanese-made SG clone, they’re maybe the best band in the world right now. My wife says, "After Boris, everything else sounds fussy" and I’m inclined to agree with her.
I first heard Smile in its Japanese version via a download, and I've since bought both the Japanese and American versions on vinyl, and the American on CD. This isn't just record collector mania; all of these artifacts have different versions, sequences, mixes, and track lengths. (They know their audience, do these clever folks; the merch booth at their show I saw did a brisk, high-buck trade.)
The Japanese version opens with a take on "Messeeji" aka "Statement" that’s significantly different than the one released on their Stateside single and album. Where the U.S. version is straight-ahead punk thrash, the Japanese version is almost a dance track, the beat turned around, the bass rather than the riddim guitar emphasized, a few auditory elements rearranged via editing. On the American album, "Statement" doesn’t appear until later, leading of the second side of the double LP; Southern Lord’s lead-off track is "Flower, Sun, Rain", a cover of a song by '70s Japanese arena-rockers Pyg; listening to its cadences, with Atsuo keeping the beat on kick drum and tambourine, you can imagine the crowds swaying and flicking their Bics.
"Tonaari No Satan" aka "My Neighbor Satan", the second cut on side two of both Japanese and American versions, is another instance where Boris interjects a dance-track feel into their music, but overlaid with white-hot blasts of laser stun guitar. When Kurihara kicks on his wah for a solo, the intensity jumps to a whole 'nother level, and the same thing occurs again at the end, when he and Wata mix it up on dueling leads. "You Were Holding An Umbrella" starts with a pastoral section, just delicately picked arpeggios, drum machine, and vocal, before the mood is interrupted by coruscating waves of feedback and a tortuously melodic solo from Kurihara. Moody, magnificent stuff, almost an Asian take on Pink Floyd’s "Echoes".
On the untitled closing "bonus" track, Boris is joined by Sunn guitarist Stephen O’Malley (who also did the cover art for the U.S. release) for an extended – 19:20 on the Japanese, 15:28 on the U.S. CD, 19:17 on the U.S. vinyl – droning jam that culminates in more ringing, cleansing waves of feedback.
What makes Boris great is their inherent rawk sense – having grown up on this stuff, the children of Nippon are now as proficient at it as Occidentals – and their infinite variety. Unlike outfits like Les Rallizes and High Rise, who, while great, can get a little monochromatic (I'd recommend the generally available comp "Yodo-Go-A-Go-Go" for the former, "2" or "Live" for the latter), Boris always have something new up their collective sleeve. You don’t have to be a doom-metal or stoner rock fan to dig 'em. The closest comparison I can come up with is the stuff Deniz Tek was doing on Le Bonne Route and Equinox, the way that music combined Stooge-derived rockarolla with experimentalism in the best way (like Jimi did on Electric Ladyland, but taking every development since the ‘70s into account). You owe it to yourself to check 'em out. - Ken Shimamoto
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