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