Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Music Library: Boredoms + Boris

Not one, but TWO freakin' awesome Japanese bands today. Aren't we lucky to live in such times?

Boredoms - Super æ and Vision Creation Newsun. Has it really been so long since I reviewed Acid Mothers Temple? In my conception of Japanese rock, every third musician is a huge fan of krautrock and Stockhausen and is also an acid casualty with close ties to the spirit world. Maybe this kind of music is the legacy of WWII and Shinto. Anyway, big loud primal psychedelic skronk-rock. Is awesome. I slightly prefer the latter to the former, but both are the aural equivalent of a chemically enhanced journey to the spirit world. I need to pick up more Boredoms albums.

Boris: Now we're talking. Boris is where the experimental Japanese psychedelic skronk of Acid Mothers Temple and Boredoms meets the pure metal growl of Sabbath-style stoner rock. They are one of my favorite bands. Since most of their songs are in Japanese, I guess lyrics are just not important to me in this kind of music, but as much as I wish that I spoke Japanese, at this point the likelihood that I'll learn it is somewhere around the likelihood that I will spontaneously begin to fly or write something that doesn't make me cringe to read. Anyway, I'll break their albums out, because they all have something going for them.

  • Absolutego+: Perhaps my least favorite of their albums. When this was originally released, it consisted of a single hour-long track of a guitar droning on and on. The re-release has two tracks now. The hour-long one, "Absolutego," has been expanded to be five full minutes longer, adding to the droning nearly-ambient guitar. This is the sound of an amp turned up loud, humming to itself. The new track, "Dronevil 2," is more of the same, but a mere 8 minutes long.

  • Amplifier Worship: Heavy, heavy, heavy. Opens with nearly five minutes of a howling guitar that turns into a thumping metal anthem. This doesn't have any of the deft touches of later Boris releases, instead focusing on heavy-as-mud riffage that develops into more heavy-as-mud riffage. There's nothing wrong with this, mind you, but it's just not as good as the band will become.

  • Flood: I'm not sure that Flood is actually a rock album. I think that it is a compositional work, closer in spirit and execution to a 20th century classical work. The album consists of a single work, split into four parts. The first track starts with six minutes of a single, short (2 or 3 second) guitar phrase recorded with a slight delay onto two separate loopers. The loops are off from each other by a fraction of a second. Unless one is being manipulated, I'm not sure. Anyway, the two loops (of near-identical phrases, mind you) circle around each other. I don't know that I have the patience to listen to this every day, but when I can sit down and concentrate on it, it's utterly mesmerizing and beautiful. It reminds me, taking the name of the piece into account, of the near-symmetry you find in natural patterns. I think of water flowing over rock, dividing into two trickles that first mirror each other, then grow slightly off, then chase each other. At the six minute mark, the drums create a blast of thunder, a swell in the river. These blasts continue to overwhelm the loops, slowly but growing in frequency. At ten minutes in, the drums, the howl, the noise completely overwhelm the track for a full four minutes. This is the flood. Part II has an eerie, otherworldly, mournful calm, which is the sound of the first impressions of the aftermath, the world suddenly filled with water, everything thought solid now drowned. Part III continues the lament, but morphs into a powerful anthem of loss then into several minutes of the same riff repeated over and over, an angry and defiant sound. Part IV drowns the riff in echo and chorus, then has crashing cymbals create waves for nearly ten minutes. Powerful, powerful music.

  • Heavy Rocks: This is post-punk/stoner-metal Boris. Ten tracks, some under 3 minutes, all bringing maximum rockage. No idea what they're singing about, but it sure sounds compelling. "Death Valley" starts off with some Merzbow (Merzbow, if you don't know, is the king of Japanese noise-rock, which may not be rock, now that I think about it) squall. My favorite tracks on this album are "Rattlesnake" and "Kane -The Bell Tower of a Sign."

  • The Thing Which Solomon Overlooked: Three songs of ambient/drone instrumentals. Includes the first version of "A Bao A Qu," a title that pops up on a number of Boris releases. Actually, it might not be fair to call this the first version of that song, as even though the title appears on a few different albums, it's a different song hereafter. Make of this what you will, but I suspect that there's a certain playfulness and willful obscurance at work, the same impulse that has led the band to release more than one album under the same title.

  • Akuma no Uta: This is Boris's first rock masterpiece. Six tracks, about 50 different styles of music (mostly, yes, Sabbath-style metal), an increasing range of ornate guitar style, and the trio working together as a seamless whole. The cover art features Takeshi, the band's bassist/2nd guitarist, imitating Nick Drake on the cover of his chamber-folk classic Bryter Layter. Best thing ever: "Naki Kyoku."

  • Boris At Last: -Feedbacker-: We're back to the single-song album split into different tracks (five this time). "Feedbacker" is a song that Boris frequently plays live, although rarely for the 45 minutes that it takes up on this album. The cover shows guitarist Wata lying in a pool of blood. As a side note, I nearly pushed into her at a crowded Austin show, and Wata is a very tiny and very beautiful woman. She makes a loud and ugly-beautiful sound on her guitar, too. Ok, "Feedbacker." It rocks, and mightily, too. It's self-indulgent in the best way. It builds slowly from near ambient noise to a major rock jam.

  • Soundtrack from Film "Mabuta no Ura": There is no such film. Like some of Brian Eno's ambient albums, this is a soundtrack to a film that doesn't exist. So it's mostly instrumental. The pieces are short and sometimes clipped, as movie music is. The music ranges from "experimental metal-tinged folk-guitar pieces" to "experimental ambient-ish folk-guitar pieces with heavily reverbed vocals." That said, it's gorgeous in an entirely new way for Boris. The ornate folk guitar appeared on no prior Boris work, but opened new doors for the band on later albums. "It Touches," the final track, is the standout and would make some pretty entertaining end-credit music.

  • Sun Baked Snow Cave [Boris/Merzbow]: A single-track 62-minute collaboration with the master of Japanese avant-noise, this is an extremely well-named album, as pointed out by the clerk at End of an Ear Records who sold it to me. It's very mellow and warm, then harsh and cold with scads of static and noise like wind through a cavern. It winds down with more sparkly sunlit guitar notes while the Merzbow noise gale blows past.

  • Altar [Boris/Sunn 0)))]: A collaboration between Boris and the drone metal duo Sun 0))), Altar is an odd bird of an album. One would expect that the presence of Sunn 0))) would push Boris towards their most dronish, Absolutego-ish extremes. Instead, it's a surprisingly accessible album. One track even feature alt-country chanteuse Jesse Sykes on vocals. Well, ok, it's not really that accessible. Another track is three minutes of cymbals and bass, and there really is plenty of drone and noise. It should be noted that this counts as something like restraint for Boris.

  • Dronevil Final: The original vinyl version of this had two discs, each with two tracks. The CD release adds another track to each disc. This is a conceptual album not unlike the Flaming Lips' Zaireeka. One disc is full of chocolately repetitious drone/ambient music. The other disc has peanut-butterish rising and falling stoner metal. Play them at the same time and you have the a pleasurable experience (if only there were some food-related analogy!) of two vastly different but good things that create something greater than the sum of its parts. Very much in the vein of Boris's experimental/compositional side.

  • Pink: Damn right! Pink kicks all kinds of ass. Until Smile, this was their most stylistically varied album, blending all of the great Boris rock trends into a coherent whole. There's slow, atmospheric rock jams, punk-based riffage, Judas Priest-ish metal, droney experimental tracks, a spacey soundtrack-style tune, and an 18-minute epic. This is the place to start with Boris.

  • The Thing Which Solomon Overlooked 2: More epic instrumental rock tracks and drones. The first song, "No Ones Grieve Part 2," turns up again on Smile as "Dead Destination" on the Japanese version and "Ka Re Ha Te Ta Sa Ki -No Ones Grieve-" on the American release. Wikipedia notes some similarity to track 7 on the hardcore version of Vein, too, although that's less clear to my ears. "Another After Image" is a very pretty and delicate instrumental, too.

  • The Thing Which Solomon Overlooked 3: Very much about the ambient drone, even more so than the first and second installations of this series. I think "No Ones Grieve Part 1" follows essentially the same changes as "No Ones Grieve Part 2," but instead of drumming with atmospheric clean guitar on top, this one is just guitar drone with waves of noise/static. It's very hard to distinguish between the tracks on this one, though. All of them are basically the same sound: long-held insanely-distorted and sustained guitar chords with amp sounds and random noise-bursts.

  • Vein [Hardcore]: In one of Boris's obscure strategies, they released two separate LPs (both viny-only) with the same name and the same cover art. The hardcore punk version, which was sold primarily in the U.S., has twelve untitled tracks. Instead of being sung by the bassist/guitarist Takeshi, these are shouted/sung (in that inimitable hardcore way) by drummer Atsuo. Although the tracks are mostly hardcore, Boris being Boris, they leave room for distorted/droney guitar effects. There's a few random quotes in various languages, including a clip in Russian from the Tarkovsky film Stalker. I'm not a huge fan of hardcore these days, and this album really doesn't do much for me. It all ends with a ten-minute drone freakout, which is also Boris being Boris.

  • Vein [Noise]: Same name, same cover, completely different work. This one, which was released in Europe, is an all-instrumental drone and noise album with a track per side. The emphasis is on noise more than drone, and it sounds more like a Merzbow release than any of Boris's other experimental drone works.

  • Rainbow [Boris with Michio Kurihara]: Following the double-blast of pummeling noise of Vein, Boris here releases a dreamy, psychedelic masterpiece. Michio Kurihara is a psychedelic guitarist best known in the U.S. (outside of his collaborations with Boris) for his work with the band Ghost and his solo album Sunset Notes. Anyway, this one brings a whole new flavor of pop psychedelia into Boris's repertoire. I saw Boris last year with Kurihara on guitar, and I have to say that he's a great fit with their Smile-era aesthetic.

  • Rock Dream [Boris/Merzbow]: Merzbow is a fantastic collaborator for Boris, too. This is a live album, and I often don't like live rock albums, but Boris has the improvisational chops to make it interesting. Adding Merzbow only amps up the improvisation. The noise he adds warps the reality of their performance into something that sounds so artificial that it must be a studio creation, but yet wholly in service to the sound and energy of the live performance. It's overwhelmingly awesome. Literally. As much as I love this album, I occasionally have to pause to take a breath and clear my head before I can continue. Anyway: KICK ASS!

  • Smile [U.S. version]: The Japanese version of this album is better - marginally - than the American version. That's not to say that the American version doesn't have its charms, because it's really, really good. For starters, though, the American version starts with "Flower, Sun, Rain," a cover of a song by the Japanese band Pyg that previously appeared on Rock Dream. It's an odd choice, mixed to sound tinny, like a half-heard song on the radio. Then the midrange kicks in at the middle of the song and it sounds like, well, Boris. This track and "Statement," the fourth track here, are reversed on the Japanese version. The sequence is otherwise the same. However, the mixes are quite different on almost every track. The U.S. versions usually are more monolithic than subtle, not that subtlety is one of Boris's great strengths. But the Japanese versions usually have a weirder sound than the U.S. version. For instance, going back to "Flower, Sun, Rain," the American version ends with screaming guitars cut off in the middle of a phrase, while the Japanese version ends with Takeshi singing the main theme a capella. Slight difference, yes, but enough to change the feel of the song. On the American track "Laser Beam" (called "Hanate!" ["Shoot!"] on the Japanese version), Wata and Kurihara duke out the guitars over a conventional (and admittedly superfast) 4/4 drumbeat. On "Hanate!," the guitars are jagged and over-distorted and the beat is a throbbing low drum-and-bass pound more suited to club music. Both end with the same acoustic guitar strums. The U.S. version was mixed by Atsuo himself, so I don't know why they're more conventional than the Japanese mixes. But they are.

  • Smile [Japan version]: Boris told my friend Leonard when he interviewed them that one reason for the different mixes is that the Japanese version of Smile references a bunch of 70s J-pop that will have no meaning for U.S. audiences. Maybe so, but this version is the better one. This one starts with "Message," a remixed (and twice-as-long) version of "Statement" that's all rumbling bass and drums with some "Sympathy For The Devil"-style "hoo-hoo"s on top and a couple of wicked Wata guitar breaks. This is only the first and most noticable difference, as the mix seems to favor noise and electronics and jarring guitar breaks over the American mix at every point. This is not a bad thing in the Boris zone.

  • Statement EP: Starts with the American version of "Statement" and includes a song called "Floorshaker" that does, indeed, shake the floorboards. Well, not in the typical Boris way. This one is surprisingly jaunty, with a lot of high-hat drumming and a bouncy bass. Very danceable!

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