Wednesday’s show at the Southgate House was a study in extremes. The music was “extreme,” yes, but it wasn’t just that. Both Japanese psychedelic-drone-metal band Boris and Chicago post-rock trio Russian Circles share an obvious affinity for powerful drums and towering stacks of vintage guitar amplifiers. However both of the groups, especially the headliner, demanded a lot of perseverance from the audience with their drastic shifts in tempo and mood.
Russian Circles has always straddled the line between art-rock intrigue and dramatic metal-head guitar wankery. With pummeling beats and thundering bass, their songs reminded me of Tool as much as they reminded me of Shellac. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Russian Circles are able to apply a forceful urgency to their dense compositions. Dense because, with looping pedals and quick two-finger-tap punctuations, the band is able to make their instrumental art-metal sound incredibly lush and full for a three-piece. Their songs ranged from chugging, rumbling metal to delicate, reaching arrangements that sounded like a heavy-handed Sigur Rós. All in all, I couldn’t decide whether Russian Circles proved themselves as a unique voice in monolithic post-rock, or if they reminded me of a really good, bombastic high school metal band give the gift of a lot of gear and lessons. Maybe both.
Everything about Boris’s stage seemed designed to visually impress, with giant stacks of Orange and Sunn amps (most of which contained multiple amplifying heads), translucent orange drum shells, a double-necked guitar-and-bass combo, and a giant Zildjian gong. It was interesting, then, that they broke down the standard rock fourth wall by taking the stage themselves before their set to adjust their electronics and tune their guitars. This was the first of a serious of seeming contradictions in Boris’s live act.
The crowd went wild when the band launched into their first number with the trademark Boris bottom-end guitar fuzz punch. Their guitars were cranked loud, but they never overwhelmed the vocals or drums as the band seared through the surprisingly catchy hooks and choruses of a song I didn’t recognize but instantly loved. Still basking in the cheers and good vibes, Boris did something I didn’t quite expect so early in the set – they radically changed gears. Not to loud, distorted guitar drone, or even the menacing ambience they’re famous for indulging. Instead, Boris retreated into a slow, contemplative piece that sounded to me of the kind of overdriven jazz-fusion only they could have produced. With breathy female vocals, keyboard-driven melodies, and oddly distorted guitar solos, Boris’s composition seemed to confuse much of the crowd.
Directly after this, Boris jumped back into the quick, noisy heavy rock they’re famous for-ripping through “Pink” and “Woman on the Screen” from 2005’s Pink. The crowd eagerly moshed, until Boris again shifted gears to another slow, melodic, dirge-y song. They did this throughout the night, abruptly shifting between crowd-pleasing guitar riffage, complete with audience goading with crescendos of gong crashes, and head-scratching drone-jazz songs. Boris let loose with a few expanses of vast guitar drone as buffers between these two extremes, but not quite as many as I was expecting.
This seems to be Boris’s m.o.; constantly shifting their sound and defying expectations. It’s a testament to their power as a band and the admiration they’ve instilled in their fans that, even as they strayed far from the powerful and catchy rock hooks people might have come expecting, there were far more audience members listening intently than appearing bored or lost. Boris is the kind of band people are willing to patiently figure out, even when their sound bleeds into unfamiliar territory.
-John Crowell @terriblesounds
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