Rating: 8.75 out of 10
From play, my brain was more or less skewered, (in a good way if that’s imaginable), by the raw, psychedelic hard edge of Boris’s latest album, Smile.
Since 2006’s Pink, an album whose genre-hopping managed to act more as a summation of Boris’s versatility and talent than a fluid album, (it rules anyway), Boris have become the collab-band du jour for the likes of Sunn O))), Merzbow and guitarist, Michio Kurihara. They’re essentially this millennium’s answer to The Band: A self-sustaining entity that can also back-up or take on anybody. By themselves, they’re a relentless force with songs that drive through the murkiest depths, decibels that could swallow lesser bands by the truckload. And, the fact that Smile, their latest for Southern Lord, is a mixed bag doesn’t detract from their brutality.
The bitch with Smile is that it shouldn’t be a mixed bag. The songs herein are by and large an explosive batch of pure fucking rock energy with experimental doses of sobering balladry and sound explorations for any ear to feast upon. The aural collapse one gets when listening to something like “Buzz-In” through headphones is unreal and unmatched by most Mallternative bands that typically get mislabeled as “metal” or even “rock.” By and large, Boris is the perfect culmination of the best the 60s and 70s has to offer us, a Japanese outsider looking in at the US and England, taking it all in and adding a fresh perspective: mud, murk, pea soup fogs of enveloping distortion…Coltrane with TWO guitars!
Beginning with the sorrowful tonality of “Flower Sun Rain,” a song that basically melts into a Stay Puft dollop of sonic icing, the one-two-three punch of “Buzz-In,” “Lazer Beam,” and “Statement,” is a relentless pulverization. “Buzz-In,” whose notes are preceded by infant laughter, bridges heft to speed with the Motörhead-paced “Lazer Beam.” “Statement,” what would be considered the album’s first single, rips itself open with what could be a variation on Black Flag’s “Thirsty and Miserable” riff and turns into whiny guitar solo heaven on Earth.
But, after peaks, it’s nothing but valleys. The second half of Smile is mostly experimental sludge. “Your Neighbor Satan,” a faint drum machine suffocating under static-cling, couples Pop-balladry with stompy hardcore sections to maintain the album’s otherwise excessive weight.
By the time “Ka Re Ha Te Ta Sa Ki - No One's Grieve” comes into its own, it’s obvious where the album’s biggest drawback lies. This song, the first time I heard it, was brilliant. It’s metal trance: A rhythm extract from digital hardcore and placed underneath some crushing distortion and sorrowful harmony. It’s as if Richard D. James decided to work with Greg Ginn and came up with this raw, imperfect but extreme idea of high-speed chaos and gloom. I was mesmerized the first time this song took hold of my ears through my headphones and shook my head.
But, then I heard it on speakers and the beat gets completely lost under the chaos of guitars, becoming some sort of howling free-jazz mistake that goes on for too long. After this point, I realized that the overall production on this record was too reliant on muddied distortion and too willing to let other elements of the music suffer for its sake. Understanding that the mud makes Boris drive as hard as they do, I think the elements, especially for the more adventurous numbers, should’ve been treated with as much attention. “No One’s Grieve” winds up being an unfortunate casualty of bad production.
In addition, there are also a lot of strange transition and sequence choices made. The concentration of rock numbers in such close proximity throws the album off balance. And, there are moments where song transitioning seems committed by a novice making his first mixtape. Most notably the end of “Lazer Beam,” which provides a repetitive drum/cymbal crash and what sounds like an acoustic lead into a medley, is abruptly stopped with a couple seconds of dead space before “Statement” begins. The only time throughout the album where song sequencing or blending are considered, is at the beginning of the album, where “Flower Sun Rain” and “Buzz-In” collide.
The morose and ponderous tonality is carried through to the album’s climax with the beautiful “You Were Holding An Umbrella” and “,” which sounds like a slower and longer version of The Doors’ classic, “The End.” At least, it does until the loudness kicks in and continues in drone fashion until the tape runs out.
There is really no question that Boris is a take-no-prisoners type of band with more than enough bang for your buck. Smile is flawed from a technical standpoint, but the band makes up for it by just, well…by just being raw and loud. Really, isn’t that all that matters?
Letters From A Tapehead