Ah Boris, that Japanese juggernaut that has released no less than 18 albums since their inception in 1992; for many years, the Japanese trio was an underappreciated -- indeed largely ignored -- group that explored virtually all dimensions and terrains of feedback-drenched stoner, drone, psychedelic, noise, and thrash metal on its own terms. As a unit, Boris have also had an irritating penchant for releasing significantly different versions of their records in Europe, Japan, and the U.S., with this or that limited-edition single tossed in the mix, vinyl editions that were significantly different than the CDs, ad nauseum. They cracked something of a culture barrier when Southern Lord issued Pink in 2007, an album directly geared toward American audiences. They followed it the same year with the album Rainbow, with Ghost guitarist Michio Kurihara, and toured the U.S and Europe to support it. Southern Lord also issued the band's second collaboration with Japanese noisemaster Merzbow, a gig recorded in 2006 but released in 2007. To round out the first quarter of 2008, Boris have released Smile, the American version of an album released earlier in Japan on the punk/metal/psych Diwphalanx imprint. Boris change up the game plan yet again by releasing their first vocal album -- there have been vocals on other sets, especially where an entire side was one track, but this marks the first time that there is nearly an album full of them. Smile picks up where Pink left off, but is both more accessible and more extreme. The trio goes back to the noise aesthetic here, but also embraces something approaching noise pop in the process. They are still heavier than God fronting Blue Cheer, but they don't forget that songs usually contain recognizable melodies.
In essence, while the Japanese and American versions contain some tracks in common, they feel like totally different offerings. Alas, the Southern Lord version released in the States is solid, but it is the lesser of the two. The Japanese version kicks off with "Message," a percussion-heavy noise and sonic overload cut that feels more like something that combines Konono No. 1, Suicide, and Loop. Americans get the trippy meandering cover of the Pyg song "Flower Sun Rain" (it's in the middle of the Japanese version). It sounds as if it were recorded at a gig from far off in the audience (at least at first); it's lo-fi and so melodic you'd swear it isn't Boris at all! It's an elegiac ballad with vocals for the first minute and a half, then begins slowly layering things on until the power rises at nearly three minutes. It's still ploddingly slow and dirgelike; it's a total psych-out tripper with wind effects washing through the channels, and a killer guitar break by Wata that shows up in the middle and moves into whacked-out overdrive near the end before seguing neatly into the thrashing screamer "Buzz-In," which features Kurihara's first of three guitar wildman appearances on the album. The Japanese version of the cut is a bit shorter. Another huge difference is that on the American one its melody is easily discernible through the guitar squall; on the Japanese version it's all rush, destruction, and blur. "Laser Beam" on the American copy of Smile is "Hanate" (Shoot) on the Japanese one. It may be the same song, but here again, the mix is completely different -- there's more guitar scream on "Hanate," and a lot heavier bass throb as well. "Statement" is unique to the American Smile, but not really. Freaked-out overdriven Wata solos, distorted chugging low-tuned guitars and bass by Takeshi, and popping tom-toms by Atsuo turn this into another punk metal meets Loop anthem. Why? Because it's a very different -- and less ferocious -- version of "Message," the cut that opens the Japanese album. Confused yet?
"My Neighbor Satan" on the American album is called "Next Saturn" on the Japanese, and features Kurihara again. The title is the only real difference here; he also appears on the beautiful spacy "You Were Holding an Umbrella." Here is where the greatest contrast between the two albums lies. On the American version of the tune, it gradually builds into a wonderful psych ballad with some chiming, droning tones that simply morph into the untitled 15-and-a-half-minute jam that closes the set and features Sunn 0)))'s Stephen O'Malley on guitar. It begins very quietly, almost Fripp & Eno-like, and doesn't catch fire until more than halfway through. On the Japanese copy of Smile, "You Were Holding an Umbrella" moves into a complete distortion bomb before it actually comes to an end nearly a minute after the American one. The untitled freakout flip-out is more sinister from the jump. Backmasked and looped guitar sounds don't resemble Fripp & Eno because they aren't that gentle. They are more brooding, droney, and tense. It begins to open itself up with elements of feedback, trash-can cymbal sounds, tripped-out vocals, and more dynamics until it begins to soar at about the halfway mark. It's more than four minutes longer than in the American Smile, and is a different track altogether. While the American Smile is a worthy follow-up to Rainbow and Pink, it's the Japanese version of the album that makes it a masterpiece. That's why this one only gets three and a half stars. Hopefully, Boris will pull another of their seemingly random market moves and make this version available on wax, or include the American CD along with the vinyl, or whatever. As if this weren't enough, the Japanese cover art is also way better than its American cousin's.