Music

Boris: Attention Please / Heavy Rocks

Japanese sludge heroes release simultaneous albums: a quiet poppy album and a heavy poppy album. Interestingly, the quieter album works better.


Boris
Albums: Attention Please / Heavy Rocks
Label: Sargent House
US Release Date: 2011-05-24
UK Release Date: 2011-05-30
Label website
Band website

This is a busy year for Boris: the Japanese drone-metal-psych-shoegaze band released three full length albums plus an album length collaboration with Merzbow. Here we have the last two of the three Boris albums, two albums that at first seem to have nothing in common except that they represent the band’s interest in creating different sounds and trying out new genres. Attention Please is the more dramatic shift; not only does guitarist Wata provide vocals for the first time (and she sings lead the whole album), the album consists of less guitar-oriented more pop-influenced songs. On the other hand, Heavy Rocks, which reprises a title and album art from an earlier release, returns to Boris’s familiar heavy guitar-based music. Despite coming from opposite sides of the musical spectrum, the albums share something in production value, which embraces the pop standard of vocals up front. (Unfortunately, in the process, this makes the rest of the instrumentation sound a bit small, even when Atsuo is bashing away on the drums). Both albums have some high points, but neither brings the irresistible loudness and weirdness that Boris has exuberantly shown on releases past.

Attention Please is the better of the two albums, if only because it’s less worn territory for Boris. From the pulsing drums and bass on the title track opener, the album has a dancey feel. Wata plays staccato guitar notes influenced by angular post-punk. On the first single, “Hope", Boris renews their interest in shoegaze, but injects it with an uptempo pop sensibility. It almost sounds like early Ash. Wata’s vocals are soft, either high or sultry; her voice gets showcased here, to the detriment of her guitar work. “Party Boy” has some robotic voices and glitch noises that are reminiscent of Yellow Magic Orchestra, like Boris gone drone-disco.

Though there are some strong driving poppy songs, like “Hope” and “Spoon", which could almost be a Foo Fighters song, at least half of the album is more wandering and textured. “Tokyo Wonder Land” plays with noise and electronics, overlaying shuffling drums with an industrial drum machine. Wata wrangles her guitar into some squealing noises that wind in and out of the song but never work into a full-on solo. But songs like “You", with a slow ambient feel, are sparse and almost dispense of the traditional rock set up.

Though the album has a poppier feel since and stays away from its usual blistering heaviness, Boris hasn’t quite gone pop. The band still uses long-form composition, with vocals that don’t completely cohere into a singalong melody. The drone stretches out the songs so that the quieter instrumentation never devolves quite into easy listening. One of the most interesting things about the album is a certain patchwork quality. For example, on “Les Paul Custom ’86", a potential pop song is broken down like a dub version, with drum tracks dropping out, guitars coming in, stuttered and spooled. Perhaps since the band is less focused on bringing low monolithic guitars and crashing drums to the forefront, they experimented more with production tricks.

But, the opening of Heavy Rocks, the single “Riot Sugar", returns us to more familiar territory: slow stomping drums, two chord riff, and Takeshi’s ethereal vocals. Now you realize however that Wata’s vocals are not much different from Takeshi’s; both singers use the shoegaze effect of soaring over and with the music. The first four tracks of the album drive on strongly, but not in an innovative way. “Leak -Truth,yesnoyesnoyes-“ opens with a clean guitar chord that gets pinched into a distorted guitar solo, recalling fuzzy grunge from Nirvana and Mudhoney. “Jackson Head” has louder vocals and some Hawkwind-like synths rippling in and out of the mix. While these songs are exciting at least by dint of being fast and loud, they aren’t as interesting as the quieter affair of Attention Please or some of the stranger stretches and mashing of genres Boris has attempted in the past.

Half of Heavy Rocks is taken up by two 12-minute-plus tracks, “Missing Pieces” and “Aileron” (interestingly, there is a very short track called “Aileron” on Attention Please that is finger-picked acoustic guitar with a single note solo layered on top. The three albums Boris has released this year share track names and ideas in this way). Both long songs are slow and heavy, hitting up common areas for Boris like spectrally distorted guitar chords and feedback that build into a wall of noise, and both are influenced by emo-hardcore in their poppy approach to melody. “Missing Pieces” spends its first three minutes as a bass-chord driven song, with Takeshi singing a fairly commonplace emotional sounding melody over it. The song then alternates between soft and loud, but is only really effective when loud. The best part is a blistering one minute interval of pure noise. “Aileron” kicks up the sludge and doesn’t waste it with quiet parts. Takeshi belts out a better melody, making the song that much more interesting.

These two long songs throw the album’s weight off, however, since they come in the middle and at the end. Something is flabby about the track sequence as a whole. The first Heavy Rocks from 2002 is a nonstop punky metal album that knows what it wants to do; this revisiting seems more like a hodgepodge of ideas. Boris is often good at putting together a coherent album, but also excels at schizophrenic shuffling of genres. Here it just doesn’t add up as well. The strongest track is a strange post-hardcore proggy experiment in guitar noodling, “Tu, la la.” Here, Boris frees up guitar chords into arpeggios that seem to scramble the brain, finally getting somewhere exciting.

Heavy Rocks features frequent Boris collaborator and touring guitarist, Michio Kurihara, as well as Ian Astbury, who also made an EP with the band last year, Aaron Turner from Isis and Mamiffer, and Faith Coloccia from Mamiffer. The goal of the album is to “redefine ‘heavy’ music” as a “culmination” of their career; unfortunately, it doesn’t feel climactic in that way. Attention Please, with its quieter strangeness and its refusal to play down the middle where the guitar and drums will go -- in effect, its skirting around heavy music -- is a much more interesting place for the band to go.

Still, I miss the guitar; even with Heavy Rocks, there isn’t enough of the kind of guitar work that makes Boris so special, like the noisy, squealing, counterintuitive solos or the thick textured chords that go nowhere but make you yearn for movement. Maybe if these two albums had been combined in some way that sequenced the tracks with more direction, Boris could have reached the redefinition they want -- but probably not. The quieter Attention Please might just be heavier than Heavy Rocks, since it is more demanding of its listener in the way it takes pop sounds and eschews pop composition. Perhaps the two album release makes the band seem distracted. Each album has good songs, but as a whole, there are pieces missing.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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