Album Review: Boris – W

[Sacred Bones; 2022]

There should be a word in every language that describes the emotion felt when experiencing a great work of art for the first time. Poetry has attempted to liken this experience to a form of spiritual or divine experience, but there’s no self-contained term to express this great sense of wonder. And while we can factor in single aspects within our emotional experience or artefacts of the work such as ‘sublime’, ‘transcendental’ or ‘universal’, this never seems to contain this great sense of overwhelmed, curious excitement, which evolves with every successive moment.

These sensory experiences exist both within themselves, as inner expression, and within the piece of art itself. That’s why discussing the merits of subjective response to art can sometimes miss out on the work’s own soul, which articulates itself through its very form and charisma. Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo and Picasso’s “Girl on Ball” are examples of this: there is something suggestive and deeply moving in their presence which YouTube videos, online images, posters or digital prints can’t fully capture, that seems to fill the room with perfume and invisible vapor. Time slows down and the world vanishes.

Music has always been held highly in this regard, as it has accompanied ritual and religion, being older than both, yet with only about a century of actual recordings to document its gestalt existing, and again, with those pieces tied to the constraints of their medium. Vinyl only has two sides of about 25 minutes each to offer, a CD about 80 minutes, digital files allow for excess but dampen audio waves and swallow the artefacts of special recording inherent in analogue transfer. For those chasing the need to create this nameless feeling of sublime beauty and cosmic awe, this creates the unique problem to both transcend the parameters the process dictates, while also finding new forms within these strict constructs.

For 30 years, the Japanese trio Boris have now attempted – and at times succeeded – to create musical pieces that annihilate all preconceived notions of how music is supposed to function, in the process deconstructing their own form and all genre signifiers tied to their name. The minimalist, abstract psychedelic rock of Flood and the punk-prog of Feedbacker are probably the most well known of those works, while Pink, Akuma No Uta and Amplifier Worship try to refashion hard rock and heavy metal in a way where these compositions end up as harrowingly loud jazz sessions. From there, the band proceeded to delve into obscure directions, experimenting with J-pop (New Album), shoegaze (Attention Please) and noise (Vein), until all these genres collapsed in on themselves (Noise).

This later era in Boris’ arc was frowned upon by many, as it completely demystified the spiritual experiences the band so often veered towards. By the time they returned to their trademark sound with 2017’s Dear – which the band briefly considered as a final breakup release – the idea that Boris could expand on what made them great seemed alien to many. The band found themselves in that same odd spot Neil Young inhabited during the 90s: legends with a glorious past, experimenting with mainstream sounds to the mystification of their fan base, caught in exploration of ‘self’ which provided only further questions of identity.

But then, to everyone’s surprise, the band released the harsh crust punk record NO in 2020, a violent barrage of metallic hardcore. The album’s immense brutality reconnected critics to the Japanese trio, a sudden shock in the centre of the lockdown era.

Coming two years later, and released on the wonderfully arcane Sacred Bones label, the follow up record is being called the “response” to NO. Simply titled W (transforming “No” into “Now”), the album is a different kind of shock: W is NO’s polar opposite in every way, and from its first moments it becomes clear that this doesn’t only break new ground, it could well be among Boris’ masterpieces – and even eclipse them.

The polarity of both releases announces itself in the new album’s artwork: where NO presented itself in red and black spray paint, immediately suggesting Japanese hardcore and noise aesthetics, W fronts a painted, metallic blue rendition of Udon noodles (likely a reference to the coloring effects of squid ink). It’s a little Gerhard Richter or Andy Warhol in its expression and comes from local artist Kotao Tomozawa. There’s an iconic quality to it that immediately suggests tenderness, but also the slightly messy quality of Udon noodles to just slide every which way they desire, delivering sauce into your lap with the assured strength of Jackson Pollock.

Like Udon, W is constantly moving, hard to contain, dripping. It is, in every way, Boris’ ‘shoegaze’ album, almost exclusively fronted by female guitarist Wata, which bears resemblance to 2011’s Attention Please, but it abandons that record’s 90s alternative coat, fully submitting the compositions to the wonder of room sound and sonic experiments.

There are definitely comparisons that could be made here. “Icelina”, with its underwater guitars and sharp splashes of piercing highlights, is reminiscent of Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand and Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest (especially “Helicopter”). The intimate minimalism of “Invitation” feels like a cross of Pygmalion-era Slowdive and LovesLiesCrushing’s Xuvetyn. “Old Projector” marries the gothic Cranes with My Bloody Valentine’s gelatinous noise – almost like an abstract roadmap to the history of the genre.

But W shouldn’t be consumed in small portions. With its first moments, it announces itself with roaring delay and the sound of large gongs and drums, like the presence of an ancestral cathedral on the bottom of the ocean. A memory of insane proportions and large spaces, which finally collapses as it becomes so present, it can almost be touched (a Boris trademark: cut a song off just as it becomes too loud). The crystalline “Icelina” removes the bombast, instead exploring the myriad of sounds that can be derived from a guitar’s body, briefly painting the room in lovely pastels. From there, the band drags us further down, with the seductive dub of lead single “Drowning by Numbers” finding an unlikely groove: Can mixing with Pale Saints.

The further the album progresses, contrasting quiet (“Invitation”) with loud (the luciferian metal of “The Fallen”), a sense of deep coherence becomes palpable. There’s an oneiric, wyrd logic to the way these songs stand next to each other, at times flowing like paint, at others just vanishing mid-sentence – here the spirit of an ambient piece, all fey like spectral beauty, there the sudden choke of a drone metal.

Like that, W becomes more than just ‘another’ Boris album. Like other albums that capture the sublime – be it Kid A, Loveless, Eskimo or On Land – it conjures a sense of presence that is somewhat alien, slightly haunted, certainly physical. It toys with ideas of memories we associate with certain sounds and atmospheres, how our emotions can be formed through sensory experience and time becomes illusory. For a Japanese band that sought constant metamorphosis and succeeded at crafting sublime art, this development seems logical. But even within this logic is a sense of humor, of unpreparedness and strangeness that we find often only in music that we dream, as it evades the purpose of music as repetitive, easy, chewing gum, consumption good.

After 40 minutes, the album ends with “Jozan”, less than 90 seconds long. I am not sure what you will hear, but to me, the experience of those brief seconds, with all they entail, are more than just music.