Live albums have it hard sometimes. There are many that get as much recognition as their studio counterparts (The Who’s Live at Leeds is the first example that comes to mind) but generally they seem to be kept at arm’s length by music fans. Often it’s because they exist in the awkward middle ground between sounding not as good as a studio effort and not fully capturing the feeling of being at the show. It’s an understandable argument and arguably true for many live albums, but occasionally something can come along that can actually deliver both the amazing live experience and do it with superb recording quality. That’s pretty much why Rock Dream is not just the best album Boris ever made, but also one of the finest live albums I’ve ever heard.
Rock Dream was recorded in Tokyo in 2006, one year after the band had just reached its peak in popularity with Pink. The near perfect set list reflects that, as a majority of Pink’s best tracks show up. Boris has such a diverse collection of songs that it’s not uncommon for them to split their shows into different themes. One night they may advertise as being their metal show or a jam show. Look at the tour coming this spring, you know in advance that if you go to the Flood show, you’re hearing just hearing Flood. The diversity makes them unpredictable, but could also be disappointing. Instead of them not playing your favorite song, you might go to a show and hear a completely different band than you were expecting. (Of course I would argue that is part of the fun.) You don’t get that on Rock Dream. Instead you get almost a complete encapsulation of what Boris does, in all of their forms. The album opens with a shortened version of “Feedbacker,” the band’s third attempt at creating a single song album. Though it’s certainly a bold statement to open with a 35 minute long song, it works in a way that it would have if this were just a compilation of studio tracks. “Feedbacker” is the dramatic opening to the show, it’s a part of the whole and when coupled with the doomy Pink cut, “Black Out,” and the previously unreleased noise jam “Evil Stack,” it creates the perfect amount of tension as Boris moves into their more direct material like “Rainbow” (sadly without that album’s collaborator Michio Kurihara present.) The middle of the show (and beginning of the second CD) lines up four songs of pure heavy metal, ending with the best of the batch, “Ibitsu.”
I haven’t noted the other name on this record yet, but Masami Akita (Merzbow) adapts to the environment perfectly. For this one night he’s just the fourth member of Boris. Merzbow’s material has such an incredible presence on his records, but in a collaborative setting he consistently proves to be keenly aware in his supportive roles. Akita never makes a collaboration about him and works his waves of noise and scree to fit his partners. He adds layers of extra haze to the heavy openers “Feedbacker” and “Black Out,” but then focuses his instrument to make the razor edged rush of “Pink” and “Woman on the Screen” sound better than they do in the studio. His versatility becomes clear on Boris’ gentler and prettier tracks, “Rainbow,” and “Flower Sun Rain” (a PYG cover and later a highlight off of 2008’s uneven Smile). “Rainbow” is like a breath of fresh air after the three opening tracks. The song is built on its bass line and Wata’s gentle vocals, which were a rare treat back when “Rainbow” came out. Akita recognizes this and pulls back to allow the spaciousness to develop, creating subtle menacing textures and briefly swooping in with noise. When he adds his spacey laser sounds (trust me there’s not a better way to describe it) into the PYG cover it perfectly blends with the acid soaked bliss, and wisely stays in a supporting role even as the rest of the band builds the song into a massive climax.
I’ve held back from describing the last two tracks on Rock Dream so far. The first (“Farewell”) and last (“Just Abandoned My-self”) tracks of Pink close the album, but in reverse order. That little switch is one of the things that makes this work so well as a live album. A band has the chance to rearrange the music on their set list and make songs work together in unexpected ways. When you heard Pink for the first time, “Farewell” was the ultimate album opener, and “Just…” in its 18 minute glory was like the second coming of Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea,” or My Bloody Valentine’s “You Made Me Realise.” There wasn’t a better way to end the album. I still think that those songs are exactly where they need to be on Pink. But by the end of “Just,” when the show is coming to its expected end, the guitar riff for “Farewell” quietly begins. It’s perfectly masked by Akita’s noise solo (his only true moment of full-on Merzbow assault), so you don’t quite realize that another song is coming until he stops. And Merzbow provides the foundation of noise which Boris soar over as the song reaches its crushingly heavy and beautiful peak. I still think it’s the definitive version of one of their very best songs.
I listened to Rock Dream for the first time in years recently when I decided I wanted to write this, and the best part was it still sounds as vital and powerful as it did when I heard it back in high school. I mean, some of the songs on this record are a decade old now. But that’s what’s really great about live albums, if you’re lucky you can record something that captures the energy of a band at that moment in time. It’s incredible then that someone recorded Boris and Merzbow that night, because for two hours they got to be the best band on the planet.