So can you learn to like an album based on four spotty song reviews? The smart money would suggest this isn’t really feasible. This seems especially true when the record defies the conventional wisdom of what comprises an album. Boredoms have always been a band that people get pretty polarized over, you either love them or hate them. If you fall into the former category, you love them without question. They may have some uneven moments but as a whole the band is absolutely untouchable to their deep fans. The band has thrived specifically on not handing its followers what they expect. They staged a free show in Brooklyn on 7/7/07 with 77 full drum sets arrayed in a spiral. It was an ode to a Japanese legend of two celestial bodies that meet once a year on July the 7th. It was a massive undertaking with little rehearsal that could have gone horribly wrong in many ways. Instead it went off without a hitch and I still consider it to be the best show I have ever witnessed, and I have been obsessively consuming live music since the 80s.
The point here isn’t that Boredoms are ambitious, or even that they routinely fulfill their ambitions, but that they do it so beautifully and rarely according to expectations. More specifically, “Vision Creation Newsun” did exactly this when some of their fans had come to worry that the band had lost direction. It may have its imperfections, but as a whole the record flows through its paces effortlessly without a loss of momentum or clunker songs bogging it down. We live in a time when albums tend to have a few winners and a lot of mediocrity to fill out the rest of the 60-70 minutes that the cd format has gifted us. What’s more is that this type of record tends to be the domain of the really difficult, like Merzbow or Borbetomagus, music that is intentionally difficult. “Vision Creation Newsun” is an album that is unconventional and at times not simple to digest, but never the least bit alienating. What other band could turn something that sounds as corny on paper as a paean to the sun into something revered by its acolytes? It only goes to prove that some of the hardest to classify art can be the most rewarding.
The one exception to the symbol-as-song-title practice is the final track of the album. Even though it isn’t a symbol, it may as well be to non-Japanese speakers. “ずっと”or “Zutto” is the slow afterthought to complement the bombast of the opening track. The driving drums are here multiple layers of bongos and noodly, atmospheric guitar work on top. Eye’s vocals also peep out one last time here but his words are the least intelligible of the whole piece.
We again are treated to some of Yamamoto’s layered brilliance here. Sadly, it would be the last appearance he would make with Boredoms, that’s for a later post though. The really special thing about this track is how it reaffirms a certain symmetry to the album. While the first track started out as a sunrise and was filled with activity, “Zutto” goes the other direction and is quiet and satisfied. While “Circle” ends with a sort of zoning out and a comparative lull, “Zutto” actually rises slightly toward the end. Interestingly, and this goes for the whole record, the raising of tension or mood or tone isn’t achieved through a simple rise and fall of volume, it isn’t nearly that binary in how it treats mood. Instead the guitar tracks are multiplied, even as the drum tracks fade out. It’s entirely emblematic of the complexity that “Vision Creation Newsun” shows throughout, a complexity that is often easily overlooked.
If thought of with the premise that the first song dramatizes a sunrise, then the middle two tracks discussed earlier (“Spiral” and “Tilde”) can be seen as the flurry of midday with the sun reaching and then passing its apogee. By extension, “Zutto” feels like sunset with its calmness and serenity culminating in a final flash of brilliance as the sun finally disappears behind the horizon. I realize this sounds really corny and overblown as an explanation but having seen it performed live, I can attest to the fact that the band are entirely in earnest about the whole sun motif. In the hands of almost any other band it would come off as laughable but somehow Boredoms can just make it work.
Rating- 5 of 5
Track 5, or “~”, or “Tilde” begins with a chunk of “Spiral” tacked on to the beginning, much like every song on the album. We get two full minutes of nice guitar fade-ups which cross from ear to ear along with drums that seem oddly treated and cut off, almost like they are cut up samples that are stuck back together. This lull leads into a fuller and fuller piece as the drums reemerge and you think you are headed for another crescendo and a possible tedium through repetition. Instead the track rolls along really nicely whilst somehow remaining subdued. This is a trick that only Boredoms seem to be able to harness well. Usually this sort of hippie jam is just completely uninteresting but the rhythm track is what really saves it here. Not to say Boredoms never engage in really subdued jams, but this one just starts giving you the feel, complete with bird calls and lapping wave noises. When the drums kick in at around 2:20 or so, they provide a propulsiveness that is totally unexpected. This again underscores the brilliance of a three-drummer setup. The drums run so thick through here that it doesn’t bog down into a stupid and tedious 4/4 pattern.
Also, again, Yamamoto’s guitar work is completely understated and beautiful. As a complement to the previous track, we mostly get acoustic instead of electric going on here but there are at least three, maybe four different lines snaking though one another. Again, some are segregated from side to side and others run straight up the middle. Again, it isn’t so much any of the individual bits he is playing but the effect of the whole. And again, the subtlety and beauty of the simple lines Yamamoto weaves together just make the whole track intensely satisfying without making a huge fanfare of it.
This song, and the one before it provide a sort of pivot point of the record where it sort of flips into a negative version of its first half. “Tilde” is sort of a mellower mirror to “Spiral”, especially in the guitar. The record isn’t without loudness and bombast from here on in but it is definitely more subdued and less busy than the first half.
Rating- 5 of 5
Track number four is denoted by a spiral symbol, whether these symbols relate to the songs is arguable but ultimately not of too much interest in comparison to the actual content. This is my favorite song on the album, if I was forced to pick one out. Not only does it showcase some really amazing guitar work from Yamamoto Seiichi, it has the most intense working of crescendo I have ever heard.
To the crescendo part first. I have long marveled at the way “Spiral” seems to build and build throughout the entire song. It seemingly reaches a climax and then ratchets it up another notch every time, even though it seems the peak has been achieved. True to the entire record, the previous track (Heart) bleeds into the beginning with what sound like jungle noises and bongos, very hippie stuff actually. Eventually Eye chimes in with his gibberish and the bass starts up the music again. Yamamoto fades in with dueling guitar tracks in the left and right channels and then the whole thing takes off. Again, it is just remarkable that a band can prolong tension like this. It is one of the only tracks I listen to often as a separate piece of music from the whole.
Now to the guitar work. The mechanics of the guitar alone here are pretty amazing. Yamamoto maintains no less than three separate tracks, two of which chop across one another from the left and right tracks and one that acts like a rhythm track up the center. It seems really nerdy to dissect this stuff but the net result is mesmerizing. As for what he is playing, and this will come up again in future posts, his work has so much texture and depth to it without announcing itself like some shredder feels the need for. These are basic repeated chords playing off each other for a bigger effect. In fact, Yamamoto’s guitar is an intensely understated piece of the Boredoms puzzle of this era. It never screams at you but it will smack you in the back of the head if your ears open themselves up to it. I could listen to this one all day.
Rating – 5 of 5
True to Boredoms’ confusing form, “Vision Creation Newsun” doesn’t have actual song titles to it, instead the songs are represented by geometric shapes. Song #1 is denoted by a circle. Anyway, aside from the song being the opener it’s a strong candidate for being singled out. Circle is basically a microcosm of the entire album in its structure. This, despite the fact that it contains practically the only lyrics on the album. The song begins in a seemingly placid manner that fast builds into what seems like chaos. When I saw them perform it in 1999, the three drummers started out with cymbal washes crouched behind their sets. As the crescendo built, they slowly stood up and eventually were standing on their stools bashing pretty hard. They had the lights slowly rise from behind too, symbolizing a sunrise. While it’s shorter on the album, the effect it still there. There is no video to be found of this, which is a bummer because it was pretty spectacular.
As the music comes up, the title of the album is repeated alongside a sparse guitar line that I initially found slightly annoying but has grown on me in the intervening years. Other than “vision creation newsun”, there are only really gibberish lyrics here. This would probably cause some disapproval in most, but this record, and this song, don’t really need words cluttering it up. A few minutes in, we get an extended drum breakdown and then back into the music, and more gibberish. You can really see the band making good use of the fact that there are now three full drummers going at once. Around eight or nine minutes in, the song seems to break down toward a finish. It gets quiet and loose and seems to be getting placid as well. There are actually still 5 or so minutes left where a steady, treated guitar slowly rises up and brings all the tension back into the piece and doesn’t let up until 15-20 seconds into track 2 (“Star”).
These sound like mundane or immaterial details about the song but it shows off a few things about Boredoms that can infuriate some. First is the fact that they don’t really care for making distinct songs, or at least delineating them as such. If you stick this song on the iPod, it abruptly cuts off and can be jarring. Second is that they really avoid traditional song structure. You could cut the album into tracks many different ways, even ways that make more sense than they are already split. You can even, as I have suggested previously, listen to the album as a whole piece. I still think it works well that way. Lastly, the song almost acts as an overture for the rest of the album. Its false fade outs and crescendos that seem to build far longer than you’d expect are reproduced throughout the album, even down to the loud fade up at the end that seems to come after everything has finally calmed down for good. Even though it isn’t my absolute favorite song here, it’s a great opener for sure.
Rating – 4.75 of 5
Pinning down or even describing Osaka, Japan’s Boredoms has been the bane of music writers for a long time now. Born sometime in the mid 80s as a project between Yamataka (previously Yamantaka and Yamatsuka) Eye and Tabata Mitsuru (later of the amazing Zeni Geva), Boredoms did not coalesce into a real band until around 1988 with the release of “Onanie Bomb Meets the Sex Pistols”
1989 would see the release of “Soul Discharge” and the introduction of Yoshimi P-we as a full-time member of the band. She has remained the longest-serving member aside from Eye who is inarguably the nucleus and spiritual center of the group. Without going through the entire discography (it really should be explored, if only for the amazing artwork and song titles), this period up until around the mid 90s was the subject of some of the laziest classification by critics ever seen. They were generally loved but terms like “spazz-rock” and “chaos masters” began to choke off any deeper exploration of the band. While these characteristics aren’t really off-target, they really shortchange the genius that was behind the scenes. Listen to “Pop Tatari” for a good taste of this era, I heard it once referred to as possibly the strangest record to ever come out on a major label (yes, Warner Bros. Japan). Their tours of the U.S. during this time left audiences bewildered and energized…and sometimes infuriated.
The true fans were tested by the sparse years of the later 90s with only occasional releases in the “Super Roots” series, most of which were not available in the U.S, until 2007. Somewhere around this time saw the departure of longtime second vocalist Yoshikawa Toyohito who was one of the great hallmarks of the early era. Die-hards had to take the chance on expensive imports that some found very trying. See “Super Roots 3”, a 33:33 single song that is a driving 4/4 punk song that doesn’t let up til the very end. It’s meant to be a karaoke song, hence no lyrics. Also, there is “Super Roots 5” a 65 minute song of cymbal and guitar noise that feels like being run over by a train for an hour. I love them both, by the way. When “Super æ“ Came out in 1998, there was much skepticism surrounding the band. This album and the next two e.p.s (Super Roots 7 & Super Roots 8) definitely showed a new direction into psychedelia without the loss of any of the challenging or inexplicable bits. By this time, the lineup was three drummers, guitar, bass and Eye on vocals and whatever else he could conjure.
When “Vision Creation Newsun” came out in 1999, those too invested in old Boredoms shook their heads and finally died away like dinosaurs. The rest of us just saw it as another step forward for a band that could never sit still. A big step forward. “Vision Creation Newsun” is a massive undertaking that should have collapsed in on itself for sheer overreach. Boredoms always seem to astound people by their capacity to keep going one better and not become lame and contrived. This is the album I would always recommend to someone looking for something new to listen to. I even offered to pay for it if they didn’t like it but was never taken up on that. Every record they have ever made has been great, but this is a true high-water mark, it’s a tough album to describe and really do justice to how good it actually is.
I will try…
After I moved back to NY in 1999 I was definitely not well off. Having recently abandoned a poorly-chosen career I was starting over at nearly age 30, and I was dirt-poor. When Boredoms put out anything new, I would buy the import as soon as it came out (usually $35 or so) because the U.S. version was always up to a year or more away. Some of their e.p.s didn’t come out in the states for more than a decade so I had no alternative, because even a few weeks delay was torture. What’s more is that the Japanese version often had better artwork and packaging. My unswerving love for this band will be discussed in a future column. Suffice to say that I have remained a rabid fan for almost 20 years now. Back to the point though. When “Vision Creation Newsun” first came out, it was only available as a deluxe box set from Japan.
I was so broke that $150 or so was an unthinkable sum but I took out a credit card that I shouldn’t have just to buy the thing. It is this sort of irrationality and slavish devotion that this band has caused in this fickle and cynical music consumer. As for the album itself, it was the culmination of what they had been building towards since their shake up of the mid-90s. And like all great albums, what you get out of it on listen one is a fraction of what comes on successive plays. If this had been my entire music budget for two years it would have been a better choice than all the other records I could have bought.
I chose the album not just because it would probably rate as my all-time favorite, but because it ticks off so many boxes of greatness. The record is challenging in that it has almost no lyrics save for the title being chanted in the first song and some other extraneous and unintelligible words sprinkled throughout. Similarly, you could listen to it as one single track, I actually have a version of it in iTunes ripped that way because it works so well. As such, it eschews a format of song followed by song for a long and flowing whole. On the flip side, this record is ridiculously accessible. I have a friend who used to work in a record store around the time this was released and, just like a scene out of “High Fidelity”, he would at least be asked about the record, if not sell a copy, every time he played it in-store.
Anyway, more gushing and specifics yet to come…
The indomitable Boredoms played New York this past Sunday and as per my usual custom, I managed to take some photos. It is getting harder and harder to shoot this band, which is a drag because they are so visually beautiful. I will dispense with any lofty talk of the music, suffice to say, it was as brilliant and energizing as ever. The drag arose when I was informed that I could only shoot the band for the first 10 minutes of the show. It was the constraint put on all the photographers. the first few minutes alone were taken up with EYE doing his thing with those MIDI controller orb things. It is almost totally dark during that bit so my shooting time was lessened even more. The real drag was in the other photographers though. There was a woman shooting next to me who just tried to muscle me out of the way and a guy pressing in to my space from the other side of her too. It was a mad rush for photos. I usually just step back when a feeding frenzy happens but I was too mad to cede my ground. I only got a couple ok shots as a result. It wasn’t a huge deal, just annoying.