In the past two years, Japanese trio Boris has embarked upon numerous musical forays, each of them entirely different from one another. With Pink, they blazed a hyper speed trail through blistering, punk-edged sludge metal, got psychedelic with Michio Kurihara on the spacious Rainbow, and descended into the most guttural doom depths with Sunn0))) on Altar. And save for that last one, the titles of these records all sounded a lot more cheery and friendly than the distortion drenched sound caverns within. Still, these albums have very little in common other than a misleading moniker, and that’s what makes Boris one of the most exciting bands on the planet. Always looking ahead, rather than back at their own catalog, Boris is anything but predictable.
With the release of Smile, Boris seem to have amassed a sort of culmination of their previous few efforts, though mostly abandoning their harrowing doom drudgery in favor of a dense and powerful psych-metal affair. And much in the pattern of both Pink and Rainbow, Smile‘s name is a bit misleading. There’s absolutely nothing that this album has in common with the legendary Beach Boys bootleg. And, for that matter, it’s not a happy-go-lucky pop album by any stretch of the imagination. Yet because the band has embraced more accessible structures this time around, it’s hard not to feel a grin creep across one’s face throughout this album’s epic chug.
The sounds on Smile run a startlingly wide range, to the point that one might even be surprised to hear that this is Boris in certain, idiosyncratic points. And yet, only Boris could record an album of its kind. There are shorter, fuzzy punk-metal raveups on one end, lengthy guitar freakouts on the other, with trippier, curious diversions in between. Making things even more confusing is the fact that the vinyl version adds on two more tracks, and the Japanese version of the album contains several alternate recordings and mixes of these eight tracks, which isn’t that much of a surprise given the band’s tendencies toward variable releases in different markets (compare the cover art for any of their releases between the United States and Japan and you’ll see what I’m getting at).
That diverse, if scattered, nature is part of why Boris is such an invigorating and fresh band, even after more than a decade of recording and performing. Leading off the album is “Flower Sun Rain,” a cover of a song by Pyg, performed with a stoned, psychedelic folk style with old buddy Michio Kurihara. It’s a mellow, but stunning way to begin the album, laying down a solid foundation, which is then completely obliterated by “BUZZ-IN” (yes, it’s in all caps). Taking its name from The Melvins’ King Buzzo (much like the band’s name was taken from a Melvins song), “BUZZ-IN” starts off with the sound of a baby through a distorted walkie talkie before crashing in with a sludgy metal intensity. In just two songs, Boris goes from one extreme to another, with six more directions to go before this roller coaster goes off the rails.
“Laser Beam” follows a similarly Hell-bound path, driven by distortion and wah-wah pedals, chugging furiously toward oblivion. Then comes single “Statement,” with the band sounding its catchiest, hollering out “ooh-oohs” and offering an accessible chorus on top of furious riffs. Things take a completely different turn with the next single, “My Neighbor Satan.” Mixed bizarrely, with drums and distorted guitar just barely audible underneath a dreamy, surreal lead, the song is deceptively docile, even gentle sounding. That doesn’t hold up forever, of course, and by about 2:08 the drums and overdrive kick down the door and all goes fuzzy and raw, which is one hell of a transition.
The tail end of Smile finds Boris indulging their more expansive and sonically jarring side, with epic feats of distortion surging a solid half-hour (longer, actually). “KA RE HA TE TA SA KI – No One’s Grieve” is a nine-minute surge of energy and crushing sonic waves, urgent but no less immense. “You Were Holding An Umbrella” is another long, stellar journey, with a dreamy intro and quiet, mechanical beats that, halfway through, escalate into a powerful, heroic dirge. Finishing off the album is an unnamed, 20 minute track draped in reverb and ominous, throbbing bass rumbles. Guitars jangle and squeal, though the song remains reasonably quiet until nearly seven minutes in, when crushing fuzz overtakes the atmosphere. That’s our Boris!
Anyone who’s spent enough time with Boris will confirm that no one album truly encapsulates every aspect of what they’re capable of. Earlier releases showcase their lengthy doom drones, while later releases provide a wider view of their experiments, be they pure noise or psychedelic rock. With Smile, the band has issued a document of nearly everything they’re capable of within a rock song structure. Maybe it’s not the band’s definitive album, given how difficult a thing that is to classify, but it’s about as close as they’ve ever come.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.