Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Boris - Amplifier Worship

Amplifier Worship

Released 1998 on Mangrove
Reviewed by Thom Kurotenshi, 24/10/2003ce

My introduction to the Japanese trio Boris came in 2001, in the form of a concert split with Christine 23 Onna, the colorful psych-loop side project of Maso Yamazaki (better known for his extremely gratifying primal screaming, coin jar-rattling, amplifier-throwing antics in Masonna). A tiny basement on the same street as a pool hall and some record shops which sold nothing but bootlegs…inimitable, nagging smell of 7 Stars cigarettes filled the tiny space as Maso swayed his mane of black hair around, yelped in such a way that it seemed he was commanding us to get down yet not really sure where he himself was, and slammed into his analog synth. I didn’t think Boris would be able to top it, but sometimes I cultivate this cynical attitude to sonic performances so that my mind can be more thoroughly blown by any kind of surprise. Boris brought no shortage of that with them- beginning with a tiny lady hurling mammoth chunks of noise from her guitar, and continuing over the course of 35-odd minutes. The trio of calm-looking musicians, indistinguishable from local upbeat-and-idealistic university students, delivered a music so loud it seemed they wanted it to reach beyond the solar system. I made a note to check out Boris on record at some point in the near future, having wasted all my money on a bullet train ticket to get me back home that night and regrettably having had nothing left for merchandise. Only recently have I actually lived up to this resolution, when struck by the idiosyncratic cover design of Boris’ “Amplifier Worship” CD during some random browsing. Imagine a toxic green jewel case graced on the front by a mischievously grinning amphibian, on the back by a strip of green paper covered in suitably giant lettering, and with a real “gummi-worm” confection trapped inside the jewel case to sweeten the whole deal (and to confirm that Boris are that rarest of finds- dealers in ‘doom’/ ‘heaviness’ with a sense of humor.)

The “Amplifier Worship” CD ups the stakes from that performance by offering over an hour of sun-blinded, arms-outstretched and head-thrown-back electrical power: distorted chords sustained endlessly, spine-needling e-bow drones, the few vocal moments not so much sung as torn out of the band members’ bodies by the nebulous force to which it offers up these songs. Detuned bass, tastefully restrained drums (which actually increase in power by not being omnipresent), and dual-language spirit chanting fill out the program. Boris’ music is not unlike most psychedelic chemicals, where your own pre-administration mood will decide whether the journey is marked by stark oppression or body-dissolving liberation. Thanks to this ambiguity, the band’s sound can be seen as an improvement on precursors like early Swans or Melvins. Which is not to say that those bands’ experiments in stimulating the reptilian brain were all for naught- but Boris definitely bring some new hues to that sludgy palette.

“Amplifier Worship” kicks off with the aptly named “Huge”, wherein a female voice intones ‘subete ni kaeru’ as the signal flag for the impenetrable whorl of sound to come. This could mean “return to everything”, loosely, or it could be a pun on the Japanese homonym ‘kaeru’ (either ‘return’ or ‘frog’.) Whatever the intention, the opening 9 minutes of “Huge” does its job to capture the listeners with a sticky tongue and swallow them whole, despite the strangled and frustrated vocal which is not such a new feature in underground music.

The much better “Ganbou-ki” follows, eventually offering a tempo change from slow trudge to wild hunt, and several smaller movements sandwiched in between the opening and closing proclamations. The lyrics remain evasive and open to interpretation: vague musings on solitude and seeking but not finding.

The band’s sudden shift into normal rock tempos and chugga-chugga down-strumming on the next track, ‘Hama’, simulate something like a somnambulist snapping out of trance, accompanied by more focused multi-track vocals (and many listeners will undoubtedly be pleased to find the all-caps ‘STONED’ amid the more intellectual musings within the Japanese text of this one).

“KuruiMizu” seems like little more than a continuation of “Hama” in its opening moments, delivering pufferfish spikes of punk energy and speed, but over the course of 14 and a half minutes it sinks back into the slow, low, place where Boris seem most comfortable. When the distortion pedals finally go off midway through the song, the resultant shimmering ‘clean’ interlude is like being served ambrosia after murky homemade absinthe. Unlike many of the ‘hard-n-heavy’ crowd who attempt this sudden transition from bringer-of-war distorted grimness to melodic sweetness, Boris pull it off with dynamic skill. Firstly, it doesn’t seem like they’re doing it as a conciliatory gesture, and secondly, it IS strikingly pretty.

Back to mythical all-consuming heaviness for the closer, ‘Vomitself’, which illustrates as well as anything else on this disc the ambiguity of the music- the band let you decide whether you’re being dragged into the abyss or ascending to the stars. 17 more minutes of detuned, drum-free drone to play while building the sky-scraping frog monument. Like Main with just a dash more antagonism. The proceedings wheeze to a stop anemically, a fine ending to the overload that came before. It looks like Boris’ prayers to their amplifiers have not gone unanswered.

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