By Adrien Begrand
If you’re an obsessive vinyl collector who just so happens to enjoy the heavier side of rock music, Boris is an absolute godsend. Not only is the Japanese trio extremely prolific, yielding several studio albums, EPs, and collaborations each year, but Boris is fully aware of just how much of its fanbase fetishizes the vinyl format. Cynics might accuse the band of taking advantage of its fans by gouging them time and again, but much more often than not, the quality of the music is consistently good. For casual listeners, though, following Boris’s career is much more daunting. Where the hell does one start? The heavy drone pieces like Absolutego and Flood? The more direct forays into heavy rock like Pink and Smile? The adventurous, accessible psychedelia of Amplifier Worship and Rainbow? Which new album is a quote-unquote official studio album, and which is a more tossed-off collaboration?
Typical of Boris, the band has kicked off 2011 in befuddling fashion. The cheekily titled New Album consists of tracks lifted from two other forthcoming full-lengths, presented in different mixes. Klatter is the trio’s sixth collaboration with Japanese noise great Merzbow. All well and good, certainly more than enough to interest Boris’s many devotees, but the aforementioned other two albums are the ones that have both the obsessives and the outsiders talking this spring. In fact, not since 2006’s Pink has there been this much advance buzz. And as it turns out, for good reason.
Boris is always at its best and most exciting the more adventurous they get, and the two new records, Heavy Rocks and Attention Please, are just that, as both see drummer Atsuo, guitarist Wata, and bassist Takeshi embrace their accessible side in ways nobody, especially those on the metal side of the fence, could possibly have imagined. Both turn out to be essential inclusions in the Boris discography, mandatory listens, but listeners who jones for Wata’s brilliant, heavy riffing might want to start with Heavy Rocks, if anything for familiarity’s sake. Not to be confused with the 2002 album of the same name, Heavy Rocks doesn’t so much redefine Boris’s music as refine it.
The diminutive Wata is a tower of strength when flaunting her Les Paul, and the stomping “Riot Sugar” features what might be her greatest riff to date, a bluesy, doom-fueled chord progression that makes Down seem trite and dares to equal the menace of classic Eyehategod. “Leak -Truth,yesnoyesnoyes-” plays up the psychedelic rock to such a degree (is that Ghost‘s Michio Kurihara on lead guitar?) that it starts to resemble the raw jam band stylings of Swedish retro geniuses Dungen. The d-beat driven “GALAXIANS” and the raucous “Jackson Head” play up the Stooges/MC5/Hawkwind vibe the band has always done so well, while “Window Shopping” dives back into the Melvins worship of Boris’s early material. The dynamic, drone-drenched ballads “Missing Pieces” and “Aileron” are as effective as always, but at more than 12 minutes in length each, they’re more of a buzzkill than anything, detracting from the pure, garage rock fun of the rest of the album. In all, it’s a near-perfect distillation of their power trio incarnation, a terrific rock ‘n’ roll record.
Put on Attention Please, however, and the real fun begins. Fully embracing pop as opposed to rock, it’s the most daring piece of work the band has ever come out with, not to mention potentially the most polarizing. One’s first instinct is that this album risks sounding as disastrous a turn as Celtic Frost’s notorious Cold Lake, but Boris adapts so gracefully to this change in musical direction that it feels completely natural. Although Wata’s riffs aren’t totally nonexistent, the way her guitars are layered and buried so subtly in the mix serves as a vital “poptimist” lesson for the “rockist” mindset, that when the hook is accentuated more than the riff, when a band’s whole far exceeds the sum of its parts, it can be just as effective as simply bashing out a three-chord song, let alone playing a tritone riff for 20 minutes.
Almost apologetically – there’s that rockist perspective rearing its stubborn head – Sargent House’s bio calls the album, “melodic without sounding pop.” It couldn’t be more wrong. Attention Please is pop through and through, and it’s damn near ingenious at that. Surprisingly diverse in style, what keeps it all grounded is the whispered, feminine coo of Wata, the sole lead singer on the record; around her voice, the guitars, bass, and drums swirl, sometimes seductively, sometimes whimsically. With its pulsating funk beat and bassline and krautrock-esque guitar fills and drones, “Hope” sounds like a sexually charged interpretation of Can, Wata’s playful Japanese phrasing echoing that of Damo Suzuki, only with a much more coquettish flavour. “Party Boy”, on the other hand, is unflinching in its pop sensibility. Takeshi’s bassline might conjure visions of Sonic Youths Kim Gordon, but when that vocal hook kicks in, the song quickly resembles pure, dance-infused J-pop, practically begging for a remix by Richard X or Stuart Price.
Loaded with dreamy, shoegaze-inspired guitars, propelled by insistent drumming, and bolstered by gentle vocal melodies, “Hope” and “Spoon” hearken back to the British C86 bands of the late-’80s. The blend of garage rock, hook, and unmistakable sensuality of “Les Paul Custom ’86” wastes no time in evoking thoughts of the late-’60s pop songwriting of Serge Gainsbourg. A different, more insistent interpretation of Heavy Rocks‘ “Aileron” is far more effective, while both “You” and the gorgeous closer “Hand in Hand” see gentle drones and ethereal vocals interweaving in a way that deservedly elicits comparisons to the dreamy sounds of both Slowdive and Angelo Badalamenti. While Heavy Rocks is good, simple fun, Attention Please is just plain extraordinary. It flat-out dares Boris’s metal-oriented fanbase to expand their own musical horizons while appealing to more broad-minded audiences without reducing itself to pandering. No, it’s not their loudest, nor their most cathartic piece of work, but it is unequivocally Boris’s finest hour on record.
(out May 24 on Sargent House)