The first Boris record I ever listened to was the original 2002 Orange Amp-colored Heavy Rocks. For me, it was early enough in my musical wanderings to be a revelation. It was a rock record with tracks titles like “Dyno-Soar,” “Death Valley,” and “1970” recorded in 2002. It wasn’t flashy or meandering, with only a couple bars bursting into some rapid-fire leads (baring the beautiful “Soft Edge”)–the rest devoted to sludgy light-speed riffing. It was a focused testament to tempered ’70s metal influence filtered through ’90s stoner rock sensibility and remains a standout amongst Boris’s vast catalog, despite it never being released outside of Japan.
Heavy Rocks was a transitional record for the Japanese group. It was the first hint that Boris might be interested in being more than an avant metal group and it arguably remains their most overtly polished and straight forward record to date. Prior to Heavy Rocks they’d released two drone and noise leaning metal records (Absolutego, Amplifier Worship), one long form psychedelic odyssey (Flood), and a violent live collaboration with noise god Keiji Haino (Black: Implication Flooding). Following Heavy Rocks the group split its identity into multiple genre strains whether it be drone doom, long form instrumental workouts, D-beat hardcore punk tribute, or the planet-crushing psych they’ve become known for. They even collaborated with Sunn O))) and Jesse Sykes to create one of the most beautiful western tunes recorded, “The Sinking Belle.” They get around. It was their 2005 record Pink and its 2006 followup Rainbow where Boris again hinted they might be interested in being more than a wildly unpredictable and varied rock band, with the metal-gaze of “Farewell” and the lounge psych of “Rainbow,” heading in a direction more reserved and accessible.
Now we’re here, with two records following only one (proper) in the interim between Pink and Rainbow and Boris’s sixteenth and seventeenth (again, proper) albums, Attention Please and a new purple-sleeved Heavy Rocks. The group has remained busy however. The past three years have been spent searching for that new identity in accessibility. Their ironically named 2009 electro-leaning single series Japanese Heavy Rock Hits ranged from interesting to unlistenable and last year’s collaboration with The Cult vocalist Ian Astbury was middling at best. It’s also important to note that the two 2011 records here are the third and fourth released this year, with their sixth Merzbow collaboration in the bag as well as an inexplicably pandering Japan only J-Pop record, New Album, released in March. It’s been a hesitant time for Boris, yet it’s difficult to know when this band is simply experimenting to broaden their genre pallet or evolving altogether.
At least in name, Heavy Rocks seems to promise a return to form for Boris. It isn’t. It certainly manages a return to sludgy riffed-based heaviness, but the spirit of the record’s orange prequel is nowhere to be found. Obviously, on paper, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but what’s here is less than compelling, a great deal forgettable, and maybe a little bit undercooked. The most fervent misstep is recognizable almost immediately on opener, “Riot Sugar,” which starts promisingly enough with Atsuo pounding his way into view, followed closely by the palm-muted growl of Wata’s Les Paul. Atsuo gives a trademark “yeeeeahh” before things ignite into classic Boris–a gargantuan feedback drenched Wata lead headed toward the sky, reverberating from some cavernous ravine. When things (unfortunately) settle back down and Takeshi tries to tack some wispy exhalations on top of the stalled out riffing, things quickly start to fall apart and the group doesn’t again reach the heights of the first few measures. This structure and dynamic repeats itself on down the album, and they can’t ever quite find a middle ground between the melodic vocals and the chunked up sludge. Neither finding a means to transition from the stark stylistic shifts without losing all the wind in their sails, nor a way for the vocals to be interesting once they have shifted. After a while, the enforcement of melody becomes downright grating.
Heavy Rocks does have its moments. “Window Shopping” is an eager little rocket of a track with a couple screaming white hot guitar solos that brings to mind the downhill Pink-era stop-start riff repetition and is probably the one track where the vocal contrast works. Though it has an oddly inconsequential doomy breakdown near the end that’s gone before you might realize it’s even there. The long form tracks, “Missing Pieces” and “Aileron,” both bring to mind parts of Flood and Feedbacker, and at their quieter stretches have some interesting intricacies to offer. Takeshi’s stretched vocals work to some degree (though it seems his “Rafflesia” days are behind him) and Wata’s melodic solos are always welcome. Both tracks are perhaps just a bit too long and you’ve heard them before.
Attention Please, on the other hand, feels like the album Boris wanted to make and is, by a large margin, the more developed work of the two. The record was pitched as a Wata fronted release and it is that. It succeeds at being that. Ironically, the parts where it remains a Boris record instead of a Wata solo outing is what ultimately drags it away from being a wholly captivating record. Wata’s half-lidded whispers have a certain demure charisma to them as if she’s playfully concealing some quiet truths behind her breathy phrases. She’s what makes Attention Please work as well as it does. There’s an undertone of pop metal that works better here than it has in the past, but it ultimately translates into the abandonment of subtlety in favor of the the odd palm muted power chord or protruding bass fuzz. Thankfully it’s quelled enough not to steer things awry.
Attention Please is at its best with songs like “See You Next Week,” “You,” and the title track, which put Wata front and center, backed by mindful instrumentation creating a sort of repressed tense undertone for her voice to drift along. “You” in particular spurs a lush industrial ambiance that recalls Bjork’s Vespertine-era production with yawns of oscillating synthesizers and softly plucked guitar echoes surrounding the hushed vocals. The ’90s-leaning pop rock of “Spoon” and “Hope,” both of which include a careening motorik drive to contrast the soft wafting vocals at least offer up some listenable head-bobbing competency. If nothing else, Attention Please proves Boris can do this softer pop-informed rock, but ultimately it holds more untapped potential than success. Boris sound a bit lost on their first major release in three years, but, with this group, it’s never easy to predict where we might see them next.