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Breaking the Loud Barrier

Guitarist Michio Kurihara helps Boris find the depth in their volume.




By Monica Kendrick

I'm not a food writer or even much of a cook, but I know what I like. The best vindaloo I've had in Chicago, for instance, is at Gaylord India at Clark and Huron, and what makes it so ambrosial is its complexity. Anybody can make a sadistically spicy sauce, intense enough to push you up onto the cusp between pleasure and pain. But it takes a master to achieve the knife-edge balance of flavors that turns a meal into a synesthetic odyssey, leading you through whole landscapes of dazzling color as it lingers on your tongue: the rice tastes white, soothing and soft, and the vindaloo tastes orange, complex and earthy. As your sinuses react, it's like you're hearing the heat--it has its own rhythm, shifts in tone like chord changes, even repeating themes and motifs.

So it is with rock. Anybody can crank a big amp all the way up, but to get past mere loudness into real depth, you need variety, imagination, and richness of possibility. I already knew the Japanese trio Boris was capable of making that sublime leap--what the group proves in its partnership with guitarist Michio Kurihara is that it can make it in any number of ways.

Since their first record in '96, Boris has developed a reputation among noiseheads, heavy-psych fiends, and doom-metal fans on the strength of several collaborations with Merzbow, a live album with Keiji Haino, and a talent for sculpting dense, sepulchral drones that can suspend you in space for 20 minutes at a time. Starting in 2001, Southern Lord reissued some of their heaviest discs--Absolutego, Amplifier Worship, Akuma no Uta--and the sizable cult who'll buy anything that label puts out (guilty!) pushed the Boris buzz into the red even before the 2006 stateside release of Pink, their breakthrough record. If they keep this up, their sold-out show on Sunday with Kurihara--part of the Adventures in Modern Music festival, sponsored by British music mag the Wire--might end up being their last Chicago stop at a venue as small as the Empty Bottle.

Now, a crucial part of a meal's success is pacing--you've got to serve the dishes at the right time and in the right order. That kind of holistic thinking was what made Sunday's bill so special. Boris's set expanded and contracted, from thunderous slabs of raging boogie to interludes of glassy, delicate psych-pop, but even at their most restrained they were louder than openers Damon & Naomi--Damon Krukowski commented at one point that Boris had asked them to make their last song their quietest. The total effect was similar to that of a light salad followed by a meaty entree, and the two were even linked by a common element: Kurihara guested with both bands, illuminating Damon & Naomi's cool beauty with plangent liquid fire and rushing through Boris's lavalike eruptions like an icy brook throwing off sizzling clouds of steam. A sometime member of canonical Japanese psych-rock bands Ghost and White Heaven, Kurihara is one of the best electric guitarists in the world, and if you don't know his playing, you're as deprived as if you'd never heard Tom Verlaine or J Mascis.

Boris and Kurihara's joint album, Rainbow (recently released in the U.S. by Drag City), is more accessible than most of the band's recordings, including the other collaborations. Altar, Boris's project with Sunn 0))), had the austerity of a ruined cathedral, but Rainbow's dirty vintage psychedelia feels more like a celebratory pagan rite, complete with quiet skinny-dipping in moonlit water. Guitarist Wata sings for the first time on the title track, her girlish half-whisper floating over a sinuous groove that's unbearably taut with the threat of explosion--it's the kind of music that stops time. The simple serpentine figure Kurihara plays above the rhythm section is a revelation, his guitar purposefully more expressive than Wata's voice.

Sunday night drummer Atsuo kicked off the show with the opening salvo of Rainbow's lead track, "Rafflesia," his snare cracking like a rifle through the cloud that bloomed from the fog machine under his kit, and the four of them played most of the album (plus some material from earlier rock discs like Pink) pretty faithfully, diverging from the recordings mostly to add an extra layer of punishing octave-shifted guitar. In this mode Boris is a relatively conventional acid-rock band, albeit an acid-rock band capable of awesome power. When they really get rolling they remind me of Blue Cheer or the MC5--they take the Can-like space trucking of "Starship Narrator" right to where it threatens to turn into an endurance jam a la "Black to Comm," then bring it back from the brink.

That's not to say they really got rolling all that often; onstage as on the album, they deferred to Kurihara's lyricism, hanging on every flourish of his E-bow. In the dreamier songs, even front man Takeshi--with his double-neck guitar-bass and towering Ampeg 8x10 cabinet--pulled back to make room for Kurihara, waiting for the next moment of grace to arrive from stage left. The guitarist played through two relatively small combo amps, which looked almost silly next to the Stonehenge of gear Boris had brought, but I wouldn't go so far as to say he was pulling the "getting attention by whispering" trick--it didn't take any effort to hear him, particularly if you were near his side of the stage.

The last quarter of the set was pure power and glory, one long release of tension after the quiet, pulsing drama of the softer Rainbow songs--Atsuo took a break at the end of a monolithic rendition of "Just Abondoned My-Self" to surf the crowd. Boris finished with a punishing "Farewell" (also from Pink) and then, for an encore, pulled back again to let Wata sing, on a tune that sounded almost like a lullaby--provided you had your earplugs in.

Kurihara is an intuitive, elegiac player in any setting, whether it's with Boris or with Damon & Naomi or on solo records like the beautiful Sunset Notes, released in the U.S. by 20-20-20. Rainbow offers the rare opportunity to hear him with a group that matches his genius, consistently living up to its potential regardless of the idiom--in some ways Kurihara's collaboration with Boris is like the perfect Ghost album that's never quite been made.

His set with Boris also had one clear advantage over his set with Damon & Naomi: you could hear it. The chatterers back at the bar sometimes threatened to drown out Naomi Yang's vocals, but Boris took sweet revenge, playing at a volume that made most attempts at verbal communication pointless. But as with spiciness in food, volume in rock is little more than a painful rite of initiation to make sure you're serious--it's what happens later, inside the chamber of the skull and the magic circle of the willing, that really matters. Sure, you can just bang your head and pump your fist, but it's better if you do it while you listen to the music's nuances, the give and take, the thrust and parry between tenderness and violence. With Boris you can never step in the same river twice--just like you can never taste the same vindaloo twice. Much as you might want to.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Boris with Michio Kurihara, right by Marty Perez.

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