Live Report: Boris, Helms Alee and Endon
They are billed as the heaviest band to ever come out of Japan. Mind you, this is the country responsible for the blistering grindcore of S.O.B., the squeaky avant-intensity of Melt Banana, and the harsh electronic static of Merzbow. How is that possible? Then Endon hit the stage with insane, terrifying brilliance and you think, "Yeah, okay, here it is: The Holy Grail of extreme music. No more calls, we have a winner."
Take a drummer who apparently gets paid by the blast beat, layer trebly waves of distortion on top from two banks of electronics and I-don’t-even-know-what-the-one-dude-was-banging-against-his-head the whole show, but it was damagingly percussive. Then add a wall of skronky guitar that vacillates between voluminous dissonance and ripping leads. You can’t hear the singer, but it’s hard to blame the sound dude; with such a cacophonous calamity going on, it doesn’t seem like more vocals in the mix is even possible without violating some laws of audio physics.
They played like that for about a half hour. They didn’t stop. They slowed down sometimes, but even that was deafening. When it was over, they quietly gathered up their gear from the stage and you quietly picked up what was left of your brain from the floor. Stunning… Simply stunning.
Sandwiched between two Eastern imports, Helms Alee were tourists on the bill. The trio made for the perfect bridge between the reckless abandon of the opener and the slow burn of the headliner. This wasn’t only because of speed, what set them apart was how they write songs. This more traditional, less unorthodox style (at least relative to the other bands) made Helms Alee more familiar sounding, but still with more than enough intensity.
Another unique facet of the Seattle group is the way they implement all three members singing. Sometimes bassist Dana James or drummer Hozoji Matheson-Margullis are in the forefront with melodious voices; sometimes it’s guitarist Ben Verellen’s guttural grunts. They harmonized a lot too, showing a collective range that sets the band apart from other noise-makers.
Verellen’s playing style is distinctive. The guy, proprietor of his own amplifier company, played bass in the likes of Harkonen and These Arms Are Snakes. All of those experiences and, I’d wager, a steady diet of classic rock growing up inform his playing, giving him an unparalleled, economical sound which drives the band.
Actually, all three of them seem to be accomplished musicians. They just rein it in, smartly. Nothing kills intensity like someone showing off. So they don’t.
If Helms Alee maintains their cruising speed and Endon goes nowhere fast, Boris brings the proceedings to a crawl -- the same way they’ve done for the past 25 years. If a quarter century taught Boris anything, it’s how to put on a show. The venue was bathed in an eerie fog for the entire concert, with smartly-positioned lights shooting laser-like rays through the dense smoke from atop the orange crates onstage. Sometimes the lights were seizure-inducing strobe pulses to match the drum’s heartbeat. A solid pink lamp illuminated the clear drum kit, accentuating the giant gong behind drummer Atsuo. Patterns were projected onto the walls of the cavernous venue, reminiscent of those ‘60s European television shows when hippie bands got invited to jam, electrified two-dimensional lava lamps floating across the hall and covering faces rapt with attention.
Speaking of imagery, Takeshi, the driving force behind Boris, is always the focal point. This isn’t because he is the primary vocalist or even because he’s now an elder statesman for both Japanese rock and the potent drone scene. It’s because he strikes a mysterious, shadowy presence in the darkened room, his every movement almost ghost-like in the haze. His dual-neck bass/guitar hybrid looks like a giant pitchfork in his hands; the backlighting makes him look immortal. His visage is as otherworldly as the strange riffs that he wrings out of the instrument at volumes loud enough to stun all the way in the back of the room.
I wear earplugs religiously at concerts now. This is the first time since I started that practice decades ago where they didn’t help.
Last year, for the 10th anniversary of Pink, they played that album in its entirety. We didn’t have to wait a decade for the new release to get the same treatment, as Boris ran through Dear from start to finish. The disc is such a return to the band’s psychedelic sludge of yore that there was no need to painstakingly cultivate an hour and a half set from 24 (!) studio albums to get the full Boris experience.
Dear was supposed to be a farewell to long-time fans. Hopefully the love for the band (and maybe the two-albums worth of material they penned which can still be recorded and released) will be the impetus to maintain Boris's momentum. They likely won’t make it another 25 years, but a man can dream.
[Editor's Note: We mistakenly misidentified Takeshi of Boris, our apologies.]