New Album (Sargent House)
If, like a lot of Boris listeners in the United States, you were introduced to the band through its heavy yet accessible Pink in 2005, you’re probably aware of Boris’ ability to shift gears from album to album, even song to song. Each new Boris album feels like an exercise, a refreshing dip of the toe into some new tide pool. This is probably why Boris has been embraced outside of the metal community, and largely dismissed within it. It is not a band for purists, and its discography reads like a resume from a senior citizen who’s worked odd jobs his whole life.
Boris’ lack of commitment to a signature sound does not come across as an identity crisis, but rather a comfort with experimentation. In 2011, after lying dormant for a few years, Boris released three albums, the last of which was New Album. The title might come across as generic, but it speaks to the constant reinvention of the band, and the album’s strange structure. Every time you return to it, it will be New Album, and you can spend a lot of time tracing the labyrinthine origins of its 10 songs.
Alternate versions of six of the songs on New Album appear on the year’s two previous albums (which also contain 10 songs each)—“Jackson Head” and “Tu, La La” on the low-fi, doomy Heavy Rocks, “Spoon,” “Party Boy,” “Les Paul Custom ’86” and “Hope” on Attention Please, which seems like a warm-up for New Album. On Attention Please, the female guitarist Wata takes on lead vocals, and her voice’s lullabye-like sustained tones set us up for the brighter, sweeter, weirder turns taken on New Album.
On New Album, the skwee and buzz of Attention Please is traded for electronic bleeps, wave-like washes and tunnel filters. In a way, this album sounds more like a Westerner’s idea of something “Japanese” than anything else Boris has done. The dreamy, swirling psychedelic pop is broken into sweet morsels ready to be consumed by a world that rarely engages with Japan unless it’s to consume sweet morsels of culture. “Hope,” which is slicker and more heavily produced than its counterpart on Attention Please, is the song most representative of the band’s drastic shift. The three-minute song blasts forth at a quick clip. Boris’ insistence that New Album is “extreme” is only given credence by the way in which the song’s traditional structure—verse, chorus, verse, ooh, ooh, ooh— differs from the heavy, sprawling songs on past albums.
This all might come across sounding as if Boris has abandoned what made us excited for New Album in the first place. Though buried under layers of atmosphere, however, many relics from the band’s darker albums remain. Takeshi’s bass still chugs, if a little brighter, and Atsuo still punishes his drums with the same brutality he displayed on Pink and in earlier, raw-er albums. If there’s any indication that the pop turn on New Album isn’t just a temporary experiment, though, it’s how polished the album sounds. Attention Please is a sloppy demo in comparison, and even though Heavy Rocks finds Boris in more comfortable territory, it sounds like a collection of b-sides not solid enough to make it onto any album. Of the three albums released in 2011, New Album is by far the slickest and most satisfying. It’s an artichoke of a record, with thick meaty leaves to peel back.
New Album also sees Boris using drum machines and synthesizers more than in past efforts. “Jackson Head” and “Les Paul Custom ’86,” distinctly dark blotches on an otherwise sunny record, verge on moody dance jams, but the sparseness of “Les Paul” and the sharp edges of “Jackson Head” keep them well within the realm of gloomy headphone music. In the context of New Album, and most of Boris’ output, “Les Paul” seems truly alien, a contemplative and minimal track among explosive and maximal ones. After it fades, the band returns to finish off the record with the pop hooks we’ve grown accustomed to from songs like “Spoon” and “Luna.”
The biggest surprise in such an unapologetic pop exercise as New Album is how strange it sounds. This is due in part to audience expectations, but also to the fact that Boris is still a metal band trying out more traditional structures, brighter sounds, and drum machines. It feels like they released Heavy Rocks (an album of the same name came out in 2002) to remind us of their brutal past before going down the rabbit hole with New Album. In its final two minutes, the album’s serene closer, “Looprider,” fades into an eerie siren skronk, and then into a pretty, music-box melody. It’s the thought of what Boris might turn to next that makes this childish twinkle sound ominous.