Review Summary: Boris vs. 2020: one big beatdown.
Boris don’t do emotional bullshit.
Now enjoying their twenty-eighth year of cult stardom, drummer Atsuo, bassist/guitarist Takeshi and lead guitarist/keyboardist Wata have never been ones to wear their hearts on their sleeves. One of the few constants throughout their labyrinthine back catalogue is the way they set out an engaging range of atmospheres and moods without embracing sentimental kitsch. This holds true for their recently birthed album #27, NO
, but there’s a twist here:
Boris are pissed.
At risk of coining the understatement of the minute, there’s a lot to be angry about in 2020. You’ve read the headlines, you have your opinions: all is not as all should be, whatever stance you take. Boris are swift to acknowledge this, referencing the ‘anxieties, fear, sadness, anger, and hatred [that] have arisen to drive the world apart’ in the opening line of their release statement for single “Loveless”. As a generally non-political band whose artistry rarely comes across as remotely reactionary, I expected this framing to be little more than epimusical context on the distant, likely abstracted, motivations behind the record. Not quite: the way NO
captures those feelings - specifically the sublimation of anxiety/fear/sadness into anger/hatred - is uncanny. This is easily the most aggressive Boris album since 2006’s battery-acid hardcore barrage Vein
. It sits on the rougher side of their discography, which can be oppressively heavy to begin with, and will reward anyone eager for a vent at the contemporary state of affairs that doesn’t overemphasise political specifics just as much as it will gratify those looking for a good old fashioned mosh. NO
isn’t a political album per se, but it sure as hell lets off steam in a manner that feels thoroughly and viciously appropriate for its time of release. Boris being the band they are, the album might as well have been written and recorded overnight; if this mean-spirited bile splurge is their take on 2020, so be it.
might be on the money as a zeitgeist snapshot, but, more importantly, it holds its own as a Boris album. This was nothing to take for granted; as the trio are at an interesting and somewhat significant point in their career, there’a a certain amount of stakes hanging over it. Their 2017 opus Dear
was originally intended to be their final album, but the writing sessions inspired them to press on. It’s easy to see why: they produced three albums' worth of material, and the music that made it onto Dear
was arguably the most exciting and impressive of their output last decade. It would have been a fine way to bow out, and its palpable inspiration prompts a cocked eyebrow in the direction of their other recent albums: how enduring will Boris’ fresh wind be? Last year's Love & Evol
was a mixed portent, an admittedly proficient display of drone, doom and post-rock soundscapes that lacked the same cloud and conviction as its predecessor. However, NO
is as exciting an updating of Boris’ horizons as Dear
, effectively doing to the band’s extant hardcore repertoire what that album did to their sludge affinity. It makes its mark emphatically, carving out a clear spot in the Boris landscape and sustaining Dear
’s all-important momentum.
More to the point, it’s a banger! Boris’ vast discography caters to such a wide range of tastes that different listeners will have different idealisations of what they want from a new album, but it’s hard to imagine any returning fans (or anyone else) expressing disappointment at the way the band engage with hardcore here: NO
is a straight-up blast. Its fierce tempos and textural abrasion are grounded in unsurprisingly solid performances, with all three members sounding as proficient and focused as ever, and it’s succinct enough that its hardcore thrills don’t overstay their welcome. Perhaps its greatest strength is the varied approach the group take to their scorched earth punk stylings; unlike Vein
, which bookended an indistinguishable flurry of frantic scream-o-thons between two noise and drone pieces, NO
punctuates its uptempo numbers with shrewd moments of contrast: opener “Genesis” is a protracted chugfest that resonates as a doomy point-of-no-return; “Zerkalo” is a midway lurch that inverts the preceding tracks’ quickfire rush into one of Boris’ most punishing sludgefests since Absolutego
and Amplifier Worship
; the backend of the final blowout “Loveless” is effectively a decompression chamber from the album’s gritty onslaught, its driving tempos and harsh vocals evaporating into a haze of soaring guitar heroics and stoner rock croons. Following this, the closer is a well-earned respite, a blissed-out ambient track that sees Wata make a rare appearance behind the mic. In classic Boris humour, this is named “Interlude”, a clear gesture with cogent weight behind it: the trio are done for now, but there’ll sure as hell be more to come at some point.
These four tracks provide the album with a robust skeleton and make up over half its runtime, but it’s the quickfire hardcore fare that really fleshes out its tone. These songs are roughly uniform in their pace and intensity, but their diversity of creative approaches is striking: the listener is in for a slew of serrated riff-fests (“Lust”), incensed harsh vocals from Atsuo (“Non Blood Lore”), a generous bombardment of fuck you
s (“Temple of Hatred”), nimble fretplay from Takeshi and searing noise from Wata (the Gudon cover “Fundamental Error”), assorted beatdowns of various shapes and sizes (“Kikinoue”, “Anti-Gone”), and - of course - unexpected Easter eggs (“HxCxHxC -Perforation Line-“, a reprise of one of Präparat
’s many underdeveloped interludes). Boris approach punk here no differently to how they approached sludge and drone on Dear
sees the band challenging themselves to pull off a style style already in their wheelhouse in innovative and engaging ways. The result is less a reiteration of familiar motions and much more a bold step forward on a familiar path.
plays to enough of Boris’ many strengths that longstanding fans will be quick to pounce on it, yet its ferocity and immediacy may offer a solution of sorts to those eyeing the band up as a Gordian knot with the relatable mentality of how the hell do I begin to approach this?
It’s hardly a sampler of the band’s full range, but some may be relieved by its concise runtime, easy digestibility, steady arsenal of thrills, relative independence from the development of Boris’ wider discography, and (for now) absence of confusing differences from version to version. Oh, and there are no drones. On the other hand, I’m yet to be convinced this has the same depth as Boris’ finest. It’s far too soon to make a firm call on this front, but I’m sceptical that these tracks’ pushy in-your-face-isms have the potential to be as enduring and gradually revealing as the band’s uptempo touchstones Heavy Rocks
, Akuma no Uta
. I’m sure that Vein
was ample cause for excitement back in 2006, but in hindsight its punk firestorm feels more like a novelty experience off the back of the monumental Pink
. That said, it’s fantastic to hear Boris exploring this side of the rock spectrum once again, and since NO
is more substantial, more ambitious and better executed than Vein
by a decent margin, history may end up flattering it. We’ll have to wait and see how long this anger sustains the band before their next inevitable left-turn materialises; stay tuned for YES
, I guess.