LIVE REPORT: Boris, New York

Joseph Neighbor reports back from a career-spanning pair of performances by the Japanese titans in New York City

Photos by Alisaah

The Japanese trio Boris are paragons of post-modern, citation-heavy rock, having proved willing to try just about anything on their albums. Though this adventurous spirit is admirable, it doesn’t always make for great listening. Boris’ quartet of 2011 releases – Attention Please, Heavy Rocks, Klatter and New Album – all had compelling moments, but too often played like pastiche, never quite congealing into a distinct identity. So I experienced some trepidation in advance of their career-spanning two-night residency at New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge: on the first night a set of ‘all-time classics’ culled from their extensive discography; on the second a performance of the 2000 album/song Flood. Could the band successfully meld all those disparate influences into a unique whole? Or would the shows, like the records, turn into a schizophrenic listening experience that is unsatisfying for half the crowd, all the time?

Boris – Atsuo on drums, Wata on guitar, and Takeshi on double-necked guitar/bass – take to the stage outfitted in black, standing pokerfaced before a skyline of Sunn and Orange amplifiers, a gong, dozens of custom effects pedals, smoke and lights and a vintage Roland Echoplex. With the first note, it’s clear why the records are doomed to fail: no home stereo system can capture the rich, bottom-heavy sound of Boris live, a sound so muscular, with so much presence, it’s as much felt as heard. This is a band that named an album Amplifier Worship, after all.

The first night is a crowd-pleasing, primarily uptempo affair. The sultry ‘Rainbow’ leads into ragers like ‘Pink’ and ‘Dyna-Soar,’ culminating in the echo-drenched psychedelia of ‘Farewell.’ Wata’s mind-warping, slow-handed guitar solos are the highlights. Buoyed by the powerhouse rhythm section, these are the moments when the band sounds fullest and most fluid. By about halfway through the first night, the mere hint of a Wata solo begins to trigger some kind of Pavlovian response in me: I roll back on my heels with eyes pressed shut. For the first night, that sense of temporal freedom is mostly reigned in for a set of peppy, three-to-five-minute songs. But on the second night, Boris really stretch out.

Submission. Repetition can have a strange effect on a listener. At first you like the riff. Then you grow annoyed, anticipating a change that never seems to arrive. The annoyance blossoms into anxiety, until at last you resign yourself to the hypnotic reiteration. This is when Boris’ music opens up. In a live setting, you can’t hit skip or fast-forward. You submit, allowing yourself to be taken somewhere surprising, somewhere you might not care to go. Much of Boris’ best work is built on frustrated expectations, which lays the path for genuine surprise when the song finally turns into the white-hot, blistering metal you’ve been awaiting all along.

Flood is an excellent summary of Boris’ strengths. It begins with a very simple, very slow drumbeat in 4/4, over which Takeshi plays a sequence of two doleful chords for what feels like forever. Wata manipulates an Ebow and volume pedal with great restraint, creating impressions of notes that sound like a violin played underwater. After about 10 minutes, the drums drop out, and a new set of chords are introduced – gorgeous, chiming, peaceful – over which Takeshi and Atsuo sing wistful verses in Japanese.

What does it mean to love a band and never know what they’re singing about? The lyrics are a mystery, a suggestion of meaning, a kind of Rorschach image on which to project whatever you wish. Is this how Black Sabbath records sound to Boris? I think of the screaming Japanese teenagers at the Budokan, watching Cheap Trick in ’78: could they fully grasp the nuances of the lyrics, those dirty little jokes in ‘Surrender’? Surely something is lost is this cross-cultural transmission. But perhaps something is gained. All kinds of interesting things sneak in that space between what is said and what is understood. I find myself wondering, for instance, how much of Boris’ stage act is tongue-in-cheek. The doubleneck guitar – so quintessentially rock & roll it’s a no-no these days – is at least functional, but what of the gong? Or the official Boris earplugs at the merch table, which come in the cool metal case? The band’s emotionless stage persona betrays no clues, no signs of playfulness or irony.

The second half of Flood begins with a noise freakout, an aural storm that will soon crack the sky wide and unleash the chaos. A riff emerges from the cacophony, lumbering and heavy and curiously major key; Takeshi and Atsuo holler in harmony over it. The final section is a five-note, chromatic riff that straddles both the major and minor scales, and repeats for ten minutes, slowly decaying, losing volume, sinking, perhaps, out of sight. This denouement – the sheer patience of it – menaces and placates at the same time. It suggests an ocean that has swallowed a city and is now at work breaking it down, eroding its ruins over aeons until all traces of civilization are erased.

While I enjoy their rock & roll side, Boris are best when doing grand, hypnotic, mostly instrumental epics that gather power through repetition, moving from spare, hushed textures to open-ended, amp-quivering avant-metal. Their strengths lie in the use of space; their music benefits from a loose structure that ebbs and flows, not measured by moment-to-moment satisfaction but the totality of the experience. When Boris do pop/rock the songs often feel flimsy, with few memorable melodies. But when it stretches out it becomes something greater, something magisterial, something to which you submit. So while their records can sometimes sound like flipping through radio stations, on stage their many identities feel not only compatible, but logical. The Iommi worship of ‘1970’ makes complete sense next to the sexy ‘Attention Please’ and the post-rock delicacy and crescendo of violence that is Flood.

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