Album Review: Boris – Heavy Rocks (2022)

[Relapse; 2022]

If Boris have proven anything during their 30 year existence, it’s that the fairly humble rock’n’roll project knows no constraints and allows for a myriad of diversified approaches. Playing with clichés and stereotypes as much as experimenting with studio space and texture, the trio have furnished a catalogue of seemingly inexhaustible euphoria and variety of style.

Coming off this year’s shoegaze and ambient-heavy highlight W, the band have decided to return to a heavier sound with the third entry into their discography simply titled as Heavy Rocks. Somewhat functioning as ‘self titled’ releases, the first two albums – let’s bill them Orange and Violet after their record covers – encapsulated the band’s contemporary interest in an almost snapshot like fashion; the 2002 original drifting through a set of fuzzed out stoner rock and the 2011 album exploring shoegaze and alt rock atmospherics.

The albums are somewhat underrated in the band’s discography – likely because the orange one still awaits a reissue and streaming release and due to the fact that violet one was a reworking of material from a scrapped album, which Boris revisited on another two albums, which leaned towards shoegaze and synth pop, dismissing the band’s familiar sound.

Judging from the crust punk of NO and the quiet artistry of W, it was hard to predict where this third entry would position itself, but the leopard-print-tease of the cover should have been easy to decipher: the third Heavy Rocks is a bow to 70s rock, embracing the cavernous proto-punk of The Stooges (“Blah Blah Blah”) just like the space rock of Motörhead (“Question 1”). In the process, the band have also fashioned one of their cleanest sounding albums since Smile, leading to a somewhat strange entry in their discography: both well groomed and rebelliously loud.

This doesn’t always work – the opening trio of songs (“She is Bruning”, “Cramp” and “My name is blank”) all feel a little too familiar in their overdrive modus of Japanese metal. It’s the type of rock song familiar from animated fight scene in TV shows, lacking the distinct qualities that make Boris such an engaging band.

The mid-section makes up for this, with the two aforementioned tracks providing a lot of nuance and tempo to the approaches. There’s something hypnotic here in those repetitive drums and wild improvisations, allowing Boris to glow in a demonic black light. “Nosferatu” dials down the songwriting even more, using drone, sombre piano notes and a hysterically screaming saxophone to create an atmosphere of loneliness and misery. 

This dark energy climaxes on “Ghostly Imagination”, which introduces processed industrial drum beats. It’s the most brutal track on here and the closest to noise music the band have gotten in a while. “Ruins” returns to the familiar heavy metal tropes, but is a really good and punchy little track, while “Chained” uses a similar approach to delve into an orgasmic thunderstorm of feedback. In a surprise twist, the album ends on “(not) Last Song”, a minimalist ballad of piano, fuzzed out guitar notes and a tortured Takeshi screaming poetry. It’s the closest to the sonic exploration of W on here, and a surprisingly effective closer to one of the band’s most thunderous albums.

Heavy Rocks (2022) is a triumph and a bit of a mixed bag at the same time. The good songs – and that’s the large majority – allow Boris to explore many of their kinks in innovative ways. The drone and feedback storms they’ve become popular with are on full display and Wata’s guitar playing is as good as ever. When they delve into free-form, such as on the album’s mid-section, they manage to contain an energy that borders on the magical alchemy early 70s rock managed to summon. But when aiming for straight metal, the band at times feels caught in an all too familiar ‘modern’ sound that requires an embrace of the genre’s campier, melodic side.

It’s interesting that it was the lack of those stereotypes that made W so controversial within their fanbase – striving for a more artistic approach in the vein of Lovesliescrushing probably proved a little too out there. But then, there’s enough variety on Heavy Rocks (2022) to bring those disparate elements back together. More than anything, the album allows the trio to not only appeal to the variety within their followers, it also shows they’ve still got plenty of ground ahead of them.