You, Too, Can Enjoy The Boredoms
n the fall of 1998 I first heard the Boredoms; Super ae was filed alongside the other new releases at my college radio station, where I had started a weekly graveyard shift. This was the autumn of Cat Power (Moon Pix) and Beck (Mutations); I wiped warm blood from the plastic carcasses of Cornelius, Elliott Smith, and Belle and Sebastian. Kids would listen to Kranky, your Tower Recordings, and so forth; Super ae sat clean and cold, visited by some older explorer who knew them when, but hardly embraced. 12-minute songs, peculiarly structured ones at that, were dead stalks laid to rot: too awkward to carry when a few branches will start your fire.
Who are the Boredoms? They're Japanese. I heard they're abrasive. It might be fun, but you can't listen to that all the time. What happened to them? They were on Lollapalooza, right? 1997 was the year Lollapalooza died. The Prodigy and Orbital and the Orb all headlined.
There were some tracks on Super ae I couldn't finish; but Hits are Hits. For a long time I described the intro to "Double Dare" by Yo La Tengo as "the two best chords in history"; do you know the feeling? Undoubtedly those chords, or their identical cousins, have introduced many other rock songs, but the best of recorded music just seems inimitable. Great music makes you feel good about saying patently absurd things.
"Super Going", the third track on Super ae (yes, every track name begins with the word "Super"), begins with the two best chords in history, and sees fit to repeat them for nine minutes. One strike of chiming, distorted guitar—I don't mean the machine-grade distortion that cuts diamonds, this chord is a diamond, or a glass shattering into mist rather than shards—is left to decay for three-one-thousand, followed by a second strike, and a second decay. On the last three of every eight strikes, the bass guitar moves up the key scale like a racecar changing to higher and higher gears. The song is running laps; the bass goes back to first gear at each quarter turn.
At about 8 minutes 30, the song skips, a scratch, five little hops. I've listened to enough of the Boredoms in the past eight years to nearly forget that most bands do not utilize the "CD skipping effect" as one of the colors on their sound palette. Maybe I should caution that this sound is *not* a gimmick. Gimmicks are like the forest claiming, "Now with floating blue orbs!" The gimmick is as extraneous as it is attention-getting; but the Boredoms' approach to music is comparatively unlimited, and I can think of few sounds that are more "extraneous" than the sounds they usefully employ.
In Boredoms Forest, much of the fun is in discovering all the sounds that live there. You might only hear them for a split second before they disappear again, behind larger elements. Music is not like a building; its physical existence can be sensed, known, only for a few seconds, and then there is nothing. Even while our devices replay the moment, you cannot stare at a sound any more than you can stare at a ghost. In any given building you may be haunted only a few times. But every time you enter the solid structure of repetition, the diamond racetrack walls, built by "Super Going," you encounter sounds whose existence you cannot explain, whose description you cannot capture ("Digital Rubber Snake"?).
Such spirit-conjuring, or the animation and suspension of natural phenomena, is magicians' work, by definition. But we also consider David Blaine a magician, even though his tricks are no longer "tricks." He now performs grand tests of one's stamina in the shadow of (apparent) mortality—is it magic if he can go 40 days without eating? At least, it's a stark redefinition of scale. Sleight of hand is no longer the art, the beauty of magic; rather, Blaine uses sleight of hand as a metaphor, an explanation, for the act of living.
I find the Boredoms' aural tricks especially beautiful, and I find the group beautiful for their tricks. But what fills me with awe is their vital, almost basic understanding that all of music—all of art—is a trick. This isn't a diminishment of music; this moves me beyond comprehension. The Boredoms don't make silly or strange mutations of the song form; they make sonic forms that express the silliness and strangeness of song.
The work I think of in particular is "Go!!!!!," found on 1995's Super Roots 5. It's one 64-minute track, featuring the constant reverberations of mallets hitting cymbals, and fingers rubbing strings, primarily an expression of pure volume. (The jump in volume after the soft, five-minute introduction is almost deafening.) There's no notable change in pitch, and I wouldn't categorize it as tonal experimentalism, although the textures produced are gorgeous and very listenable. I consider "Go!!!!!" an emotional, expressionist act: the act of rock without rhythm. That is, it's an attempt to perform the unperformable, to move the proverbial mountain. It's beautiful and silly at the same time, an expression of humility in the face of the sublime, irrational music from a world of crippling rationality. What bewilders me is how often people have tried to rationally understand these approaches to music. What frustrates me is when people dismiss the music because they can't rationally understand it.
My first Boredoms concert, summer of 1999, was a totally absorbing and entirely humbling experience. The 9:30 Club, a major D.C. venue, was barely a third full. The concert started with ten minutes of Eye issuing beautiful warbly echoes from an unmarked box sitting on a chest in the middle of the stage. Echoes grew into vibrations grew into thunder; from this point on Eye was jumping, dancing, and screaming. For us, dancing was not a choice, but a compulsion; the songs we did not recognize were mere raw materials for the ongoing collective performance. Sometimes Eye would appear to be conducting the three drummers onstage, and I expected fireballs to shoot from his hands. The bass and guitar alternated between anchor and accent roles, and I could never tell when the drummers were going to play divergent fills and when they would join again in simultaneous, lockstep groove. The frenetic beat never stopped, only sped further or slowed to a jog. We were dazed, we were helpless, I screamed over and over. We never stopped dancing, not for a second, and not even at every other band's half-decent show in the years that have followed. It was the best night of my life: the night that my obsessive crush on "Super Going" turned into a full-blown love for the Boredoms.
Moments after the band left the stage, three boys in front of me, maybe brothers, roughly aged 12 to 16, threw their hands together in a team-spirit clench. They cried out in unison: "Whoaaa, Penis!" In the shadow of the Boredoms, the absurdity was entirely appropriate.
By: Cooper Anderson
Published on: 2006-10-27