It takes more than raging guitars and squealing synthesizers to pierce through the piss- and beer-stained atmosphere of the Rickshaw and into the hearts of avant-garde metalheads. It also takes a ton of talent, a measure of courage, and a willingness to get more than a little weird.
Seattle-based openers Master Musicians of Bukkake took much of their sense of otherness from their Southeast Asian religious inspirations. Visually elaborate, they set the tone with projections of vintage scientific footage onto the screens on either side of the stage. Their seven-man stage setup had everyone in masks and costumes, though I was hard-pressed to guess at particular characters – they seemed to be mainly for the strangeness factor. The bandleader (or should I say, the “cantor”) used three different costume variations, including demon-masked and faceless personae, and incorporated a sort of ritualistic routine into his performance.
However, their songs were far less memorable. It’s essentially outsider post-rock, making heavy use of repetition and complex meters and rhythms. Instruments included two guitars, two drum kits, a bass, chanted vocals, and a big mess of synths and oscillating effects pedals. No one instrument ever took over; the group worked as a unit to deliver their foreign-sounding drones. The vocals were perhaps the most interesting and defining aspect of the music, lending a strong feeling of foreignness and cultic spirituality.
Still, with all the fluff and ceremony, I couldn’t help but feel they tried too hard to be interesting. The band name is intentionally perverse, and the visuals diverted the attention, but none of it seemed very purposeful. If the music itself had been more inherently exciting, or the presentation not so damned pretentious, I could have enjoyed it more.
The second band to take stage, LA-based Marriages, represented an opposite extreme: a minimal compliment of guitar, drum kit, bass, and synthesizer; all dressed in black, except for guitarist/singer Emma Ruth Rundle’s weathered white frock. Their clean and classic power-trio setup and understated appearance not only made them look more professional but humanized them individually as well.
Sonically, Marriages were loud, but not overwhelming, and I even managed to survive their set without my earplugs. They successfully maintained a democracy of sound, with each member making clear contributions to the overall arrangement. Their songs are exceptionally strong for a metal band. With a minimal number of elements, they built complex and compelling structures, with Rundle baring a bit of soul in her vocal performance. Their particular brand of metal is a sophisticated one, capable of translating complex emotional content with subtlety, vulnerability, and maturity. Their impeccable musicianship and relatable stage presence endeared them to me, and they are living evidence that metal is a form of artistic expression, capable of innovation and depth.
Even once Boris got onstage, I didn’t know what to expect. This is a band with a rare wealth of material in a wide spectrum of styles. Over the past decades, they have explored the artistic possibilities of metal with an enthusiasm (naiveté, perhaps?) that almost doesn’t make sense in the genre. They have a relatively clean-cut, fun-loving image to match: embrace the doom, escape the gloom.
Their stage setup was spacious, probably to make room for drummer Atsuo’s wildly extroverted personality… and guitarist Wata’s monstrous tone. And good God, are they loud. There really is something magical about the sound of a guitar played at airplane takeoff levels. It is a powerful physical experience, where the music happens in the air and in the body as much as in the ears, and where a two-note guitar chord can ring with as much detail as a full brass section.
As far as songs go, Boris are hit-makers. As loud and aggressive as they are, they write and perform with an energy that I can only describe as “joyous.” The songs are not particularly melodic, but they are very catchy, almost danceable (if it wasn’t for the room full of metalheads). And, of course, their material has remarkable diversity: rumbling drone contemplations are broken up by ambient-rock excursions and driving sludge-punk attacks. And that’s without dipping into the synth-pop repertoire.
Boris is a truly unique, vital player in the modern metal scene, exploring the genre’s many facets without fear or undue self-importance, and uniting drastically contrasting touring mates under one banner. By a large margin, it was the most awesome show I’ve seen this year.