Note: Z.O.A here refers to an experimental Japanese rock band.
Just like most of their songs, this Boris review is long as hell.
I was under the impression that the Z.O.A / Boris collaboration was a single off a full album, cancelled by COVID. It’s the kind of project Boris often undertakes, spotlighting an artist in their orbit like they have in the past with Merzbow and Keiji Haino. This time it’s Z.O.A, an experimental rock group influential on Boris, and then in turn aided in their resurgence by Boris. The single was to be released for a live show which, due to the pandemic, couldn’t happen. It would be what was left over from that unfinished project. This is what I assumed.
It turns out the ‘single’ isn’t really a single at all. “Refrain”, whose full title is REFRAIN -If You / En Attendant Godot- is a full suite with two sweeping, distinct movements. It’s also massive, just one second shy of 33 minutes in length.
That’s longer than each of Boris’s 2019 records LφVE and EVφL. It’s no surprise, no one paints better on a larger canvas than Boris (except maybe Earth). As it turns out, “Refrain” is basically an album,
It also refers to itself as an Indie Screamo song. And it sounds wild.
Released June 26th, “Refrain” is a towering half-hour of moody, heavy rock. It’s rare to hear a band as heavy as Boris sound this clean. There’s the whirlwind of distortion and radiating guitar guitar solos we’ve come to expect from them – eventually – but front and center in the mix is Z.O.A vocalist Seiichirou Morikawa. The jazzy intro gives way to a kind of soaring, heavily-distorted arena rock. He wails, mournful and clear above Boris’s jagged sonic landscape. “Refrain”‘s first movement (If You) is a ballad, melodramatic and intense in a way that never gives way to camp. For the first sixteen minutes the two bands are a spotlight for Morikawa, with Boris sounding more like a conventional rock act than they have in a decade. It’s sublime.
Halfway in, things change suddenly. At the shift to the second movement (En Attendant Godot), the track drops off to the echoing toll of a bell. It stays this way for about three minutes, hovering.
From a distance, Wata’s guitar screams over a wall of heavy reverb, and then over a drone, undulating and growing in intensity. Part of being a fan of these bands is having absolutely no idea where the track is going next, which genre it might slip into. Sometimes it’s noise, sometimes it’s stoner rock. On one memorable occasion, it was a kind of electronic pop. Being a fan will give you some clues, but there’s really no telling.
This time it’s a pillar of distortion that drops heavy into the center of the mix, scattering sound in every direction. At their best, no one does movements like Boris and, apparently, Z.O.A. They wield their instruments like sculptors, carving out a physical space through noise. The vision dissipates all at once, cutting hard to a quiet, reverberating guitar chord.
There are eleven minutes left in the track.
With music of this length and complexity, it’s tempting to get into a stylistic play-by-play, cheering from the stands while the track snaps back and forth between genres. This is one of those songs, but it never stretches itself too thin – it’s unified by a melancholy that seeps from every note. Morikawa returns, accompanied by bass guitar and a tambourine. “Refrain” becomes a ballad again, but a corner cracks open and begins to expand – a screaming point of noise, growing in intensity. The rest of the track suddenly drops out around it, dropping into a swamp of distortion and sludge. Everything melts together into a loud, heavy morass of noise and feedback.
Slowly, ”Refrain” wrenches itself out of the earth, and achieves lift-off: Morikawa resurfaces along with Boris’s Takeshi, and the track rockets upward into a final, soaring guitar solo. “Refrain” ends ponderous and overwhelming, swelling with feedback and rolling to a growling, droning stop.
“Refrain” is gigantic, but it doesn’t feel like a half-hour of music. It isn’t over-stuffed with ideas, nor is it intimidating in its complexity: It simply executes two major movements exceptionally well. It’s heavy as hell but restrained and emotive, too. Z.O.A brings out the best in Boris. It’s the best thing they’ve done in some time.
Boris sometimes requires patience to enjoy. Their music can be a commitment – straight-to-tape improvised album-length tracks, multiple albums a year – but that spontaneity keeps fans coming back. This same spontaneity drives critics nuts. I get why. “Refrain” isn’t their defining work, but Z.O.A alters their sound in radical, interesting ways. “Refrain” isn’t restrained in a traditional sense, but it is for Boris: we get to watch them paint with a single palette for a half hour, with subtle, shifting changes in tone, anchored by a guest vocalist. Decades into their careers, “Refrain” is a great entry point to a challenging band. It’s a showcase of everything that makes them idiosyncratic, frustrating and brilliant. It’s evidence that they haven’t lost their touch.
Go buy it – but wait til Bandcamp Friday.