Boris Rainbow [with Michio Kurihara]

[Drag City; 2007]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: metal, drone, ambient
Others: Ghost, Michio Kurihara, Melvins, Blue Cheer

When I caught Boris in Georgia last fall, a music-as-ritual aesthetic pervaded their set. Symmetrical amplifier towers of Babylon framed a gigantic gong. During slow songs, drummer Atsuo slowly pounded the gong as seismic waves of feedback emanated from the stacks/altars. When the band tackled speedier tunes, they performed them with the leap-into-nothingness recklessness of Nirvana. Boris weren’t playing music -- they were conjuring.

Thing is, the crowd -- a collection of MP3 blog-hounding dilettantes, grown-up emo people, and beardos who cycle in and out of a ‘metal phase’ as often as Burger King changes its specialty sandwich promotions -- was as post-ritual as a crowd (which is, by nature, a ritualistic entity) could get. These college-town dwellers had stuffed their head with philosophies of dead gods, modernity’s simulated realities, and mechanically quashed auras. By watching countless episodes of Behind the Music, they had learned that no heavy metal band really worships Satan, engages in occult practices, or stages a true revolt against The System. And these attendees were omnivorous and free-roaming music consumers, rejecting notions of art as a mark of subcultural identity or agent of unified social movement. And from what I know about Boris, its members are very much like its fans: they see the spiritual and supernatural as metaphors for flesh-and-blood power struggles, and they belong to no particular circumscribed musical community. So all this ritual lacked was a referent -- or at least it lacked a referent outside of itself. This ritual celebrated the simple act of music-making and nothing more. This ritual was a worship service for the one force in which band and audience seemed to truly believe. This music’s meaning was simply music, ain’t it grand.

Kind of a hellish, Beckettian circle of meaninglessness, no?

Fortunately, Boris’ recordings don’t travel in this empty orbit. Well, perhaps they do for English-speaking listeners -- we can’t understand what this stuff means. Maybe the only kind of Boris experience we’re capable of appreciating is the hyper-post-somethinganother spectacle I witnessed. But no; on record, when their heaving and lurching shape themselves into songs (or relatively song-like ambient compositions), Boris sing about real stuff, and they want us to listen. They’ve mentioned before in interviews that they want listeners to contemplate the suggestive intricacy of their lyrical symbolism. They’ve also posited that their instrumental droneworks are in fact clarion calls to close listening: “Drone prompts audience to understand the structure to listen to real music. We think that it is needed now in the meaning, which retrieves such music,” Atsuo explains.

Of course, Boris’ extensive back catalogue is full of crushing Melvins-ish metal, frazzled Blue Cheer-like stomp-rock, and immersive Fripp & Eno-esque ambience -- stuff so immense that we can get our visceral kicks and enjoy the music without taking the time to notice its finer qualities. But as Boris figure more prominently in the international rock scene, we ought to peel back the layers a bit and contemplate them as something more than a cyclone of bad-ass-ness. Are we really going to let this band billow into a global phenomenon without discussing anything other than how metal or not-metal their music is? Is this band nothing more than a proving ground for competing theories about hipster metal and its significance?

No, and no, not when they’ve released an album as exquisitely crafted, well-paced, and introspective as Rainbow. Whereas past Boris records unleashed pulses of sound to die beneath, this one boasts sculpted compositions to live within. Guest lead guitarist Michio Kurihara (of Ghost renown) contributes greatly to Rainbow’s architectural songs. His sizzling, buzz-toned licks, fills, solos, and climactic blowouts give Boris’ songs more variety and dynamic range than they’ve ever had in the past. He frees the band up to play stuff that would sound dull if reduced to the typical Boris low-end chug, stuff like slinky, minimal sex-rock (“Rainbow”), Quicksilver-reeking rattlesnake blues (“Sweet No. 1”), and Oasis-gone-Sonic Youth ballads (not as unbecoming an idea as you’d think -- check “You Laughed like a Water Mark”).

Lyrics are still in Japanese, but some of them have been translated in the booklet. Looks like these songs deal with some mature ideas: the existential nothing-is-everything vibe that permeated the concert I saw (“Shine”), agnosticism with the confident insistence of militant atheism (“Starship Narrator”). “Rafflesia” is a self-reflexive slice of imagism, a terse ode to distortion. You and I need to get some Japanese under our belts so that we can figure out what, exactly, Boris are up to here, as I can only imagine that their project is of the constantly rewarding, high-concept variety.

Throughout Rainbow, Boris still play fierce enough to cow the most frightening of dudes into a corner. But what we’re ultimately dealing with here isn’t an all-consuming ritual, but an intricate, begging-to-be-examined text, the kind of record that gets written up in the 33 1/3 series and never goes out of stock at Barnes and Noble. So let’s spend some quality time with this one, and maybe Boris will reward us with a booklet of fully translated lyrics next go-round.

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