Boris & Ian Astbury
, August 19th, 2010 16:29
Barring a shrug of indifference, there are three possible responses to the news of this collaboration between Japanese avant-metal collective Boris and Ian 'Wolfchild' Astbury, AKA him out of goth-bothering gonzo rockers The Cult. One might applaud the unlikely but highly welcome coming together of two titans of the hard rock spectrum. One might turn down the volume on one's 4-CD anniversary edition of Love, open the purple velvet curtains of one's abode for the first time since 1987 and, blinking in the sudden sunlight, think, 'Ian Astbury and who? The old dear must be getting desperate; it's a bit of a comedown from The Doors, isn't it?' Or, finally, one might explode in a fit of apoplexy and dash off a furious e-mail to Southern Lord Records, demanding to know what on this blasted earth the godlike Boris are doing lowering themselves to work with a washed-up charlatan and turgid tripe-monger like Astbury, and vowing never to buy another etched-vinyl limited edition in sigils-bound, solid oak and coffin-nail box set with free screen print and sherbet dib-dab from the company ever again, at least not until the A&R man responsible is subjected to public crucifixion, upside-down, on the main stage of this year's Supersonic Festival.
Whatever you think, however, chances are that Boris don't really give a shit. If anything has defined the Tokyo trio's 15-year career, it's a refusal to be pigeonholed. Producing a constant turnover of releases that's seen them shift from hardcore punk to stoner metal, to drone rock, shoegaze, blessed-out ambience and filthy, corrosive noise blasts, they're also no strangers to collaborations, happily adapting themselves to fit in with the likes of Keiji Haino, Merzbow and Sunn O))), while losing none of their own distinctive character. It's also apparent, from their album covers if nothing else, that the band don't take themselves overly seriously; that they have a love of rock history that doesn't preclude parodying it, that they embrace the ridiculous along with the sublime and that, like Spinal Tap before them, they realise that the fine line between stupid and clever is the path that leads to greatest glory.
Astbury too has remained far more open-minded about musical change than most of his peers. He'd already travelled the road from teenage Crass fan to positive-punk poster boy with Southern Death Cult, to goth icon with The Cult in their 'She Sells Sanctuary' pomp, to re-inventing classic metal for the late-80s, hip-hop era on Electric by the time grunge arrived in the early nineties, threatening to relegate him and his generation to history's dustbin. But while the likes of The Mission and Love and Rockets saw their audiences decimated by the new scene, Astbury embraced it, organising the 1990 Gathering of the Tribes festivals in the US which saw Soundgarden, Iggy Pop and The Cramps play alongside Ice T, Public Enemy and Queen Latifah, and featuring Pearl Jam and Mercury Rev as main support acts (albeit below Ned's Atomic Dustbin) at the Cult's massive Finsbury Park show in 1992. And before getting side-tracked by the '21st Century Doors' or whatever we're legally obliged to call them, Astbury's 90s releases were arguably more adventurous than his audience were willing to accept, from The Cult's great lost electro-rock single of 1992, 'The Witch' to the patchy but ambitious Holy Barbarians and Shoot/Light/Speed albums, not to mention guest appearances with everyone from The Fuzztones and The MC5 to UNKLE.
So, while the matching of Boris with Astbury may at first raise eyebrows, it's not actually such a strange coupling after all. Astbury's talent has always been to sing the most absurd lyrics with absolute passion, to pull off every hackneyed, rock n' roll pose with a straight face, and to convey an endless enthusiasm for rock as both deep spiritual force and testosterone-charged cartoon caper. In Japanese culture it's more readily accepted that something can be both comically childish and simple, and spiritually profound at the same time; maybe then, Boris can accept Astbury's metaphor in full, seeing him as both goon and shaman without any damaging contradiction between the two.
There's certainly a pagan, tribal-mystical feel to all of the EP's four tracks, alongside a knowing harnessing of rock clichés. 'Teeth and Claws' opens with a queasy MBV guitar-drone before Astbury comes in low, singing in his most gothic register, and the music settles into a simple, descending chugging riff, over which Astbury wails about how "the animals will save us," by fighting off the forces of evil amongst us, or something. 'We Are Witches' follows much the same template, with solid if uninspired riffing from Boris, as Astbury advocates "surrounding yourself with heroes and witches." Our man sits out the third track entirely, as Boris's version of The Cult's 'Rain' features guitarist Wasa taking Astbury's place on vocals, singing in a breathy, childlike-yet-sensual voice, gentle and soothing while the band hammer the shit out of the musical template, filling in the dark empty spaces of the original with gnarly nuggets of wah-wah and distortion and glassy, pitch-bending chords. The charm of the original song was always its melodic simplicity, and that stately, air-punching essence remains intact, merely retooled and refitted for the more depraved and decadent tastes of your 21st century rock fan. Great stuff.
The final track, 'Magikal Child,' is a thunderous ballad with Astbury singing as if to inspire the armies of Asgard on the very eve of Ragnarok, as the weapons of Viking gods are hammered out in some celestial forge behind him. It's a stunning climax, but one that leaves you feeling that this record has ended just as it's really starting to take off. While fine as far as it goes, Boris seem to have reined in some of their more extreme and adventurous tendencies on this EP; in compromising to accommodate Astbury, they may have denied him the opportunity to stretch himself that he was looking for. Indeed, if someone had played me 'Teeth and Claws' and told me it was the new Cult record, I'd have readily believed them, not only because Astbury's voice is so distinctive, but because Boris have largely allowed him to remain well within his comfort zone.
Ultimately though, if this collaboration brings Boris to a wider, more mainstream rock audience, then it's worthwhile for that reason alone; equally, if it inspires Astbury to put his lizard king leather trousers to the back of the wardrobe, and re-invigorates his enthusiasm for forward-looking psychedelic metal, than that, too, is a definite result. The promised live shows featuring the two forces should certainly be worth seeing, and hopefully onstage Boris's penchant for extended improvisation, alongside Astbury's undoubted charisma and power as a frontman, should see things entering weirder and wilder territories. No crucifixions required just yet, then; but hopefully the best is yet to come.