Boris is a steam engine of a power trio whose sound careers violently all over the psych-rock map. Smile is the band’s proper full-length follow-up to Pink, their international career zenith to date, the album that rocketed them to into the collective headbanging consciousness. Said consciousness really enjoys things like, for example, having its face melted by super lightning-bolt riffs, unholy infinite drones, and drooling in print about the sheer, near-unthinkable sublimity of Finnish doom LPs where the album name is ten consonants randomly put together.
Being an avid acolyte of this epic stoner underground, I can’t help but notice that Boris occupies quite well the position of being the ultimate fan-fetish object, the one band that might one day put out something like The Record, the one supreme messianic Olympian face-melter that will, in a last judgment, lay waste to everything and everyone.
Basically Pink was that record, and basically Boris have never repeated the epiphanies of that album’s hairpin-whiplash riffage. And if that album is where you came into the Boris saga, it’s not always an easy reference point to shake. Not even for Boris, it seems. In a recent interview with Paper Thin Walls, the band goes to great lengths to explain the artistic and psychological condition it found itself in during and after the maelstrom of attention blown up by Pink: they didn’t know what to do next, didn’t want to repeat themselves, and began to reflect on being a Japanese band in a Western cultural world. Drummer Atsuo says, “It got pretty boring to the point that I lost interest in it and started looking with new eyes at Japanese imitations of things, things in Japanese culture that were fake, and especially music that was an imitation of foreign music.”
In other words, put chronologically, Smile is their Kid A to Pink’s OK Computer, except instead of going for boundary-pushing stylistic experimentation, Boris tried to fuck with their own identity in other ways: deliberately aiming for uncoolness, embracing and interpolating old Japanese metal bands you don’t know about, recording the album themselves and then giving the tapes over to You Ishihara for a separate Japanese mix of the album, which also has a separate cover, and so on.
Here the hairier, dronier doom aspects of the band’s sound have here largely been put on hold to focus on songs, and the results are the sort of mixed-bag of serious stunners and unfocused ideas that we might expect from a superbly talented and intelligent band trying to eke out a new path in the wake of a defining album. In general, however, sheer brute force of the Boris sound is still intact. While trying to come up with an appropriately over-the-top psych-rock critic metaphor for their sound, I decided on "airplane on fire" only to then remember that Stephen O’Malley’s cover image for the U.S. version is exactly that.
The album opens with a cover of Japanese rock group PYG. Another song, “Laser Beam,” is supposedly a tribute to kind of a tribute to an ’80 Japanese metal band called Anthem, in which the lyrics are those of Anthem’s and have been cut-up and re-arranged. A couple of tracks, like “You Were Holding an Umbrella,” feature a friendly, chilled-out groove gets split in half by blinding feedback, much in the way sunlight ecstatically bifurcates the landscape in a late Turner painting. The strategy of self-recording pays off here for the band, the guitars in particular having a great fat, garage-y Marshall-stack stink all over them.
Unfortunately and inexplicably, one of the most remarkable tracks has been wildly de-balled and retitled for the U.S. release. “Message” opens the Japanese release with some very Konono No.1-inspired electro-tribal weirdness that completely takes you by surprise, and the fact that this inspired mutation in Boris’ sound has been castrated and buried in the track list as “Statement” indicates that the band is both very open to new ideas and not quite sure yet how to follow through with them. Someone should play them Portishead’s latest for a shining example of how to bury a straitjacket of an artistic identity and be able sail boldly, guilt-free and without desperation into uncharted territory.