On a conceptual level, there’s almost nothing new about a double-guitar four-piece from Washington D.C. getting down with riff-led groove, and yet, listening to heavy rockers Borracho – who make their full-length debut on the self-released Splitting Sky (released on No Balls Records in Germany) – there’s no denying the formula works. Fuzz guitars lead the way through eight tracks/57 minutes of burly, American riff rock, underscored with formidable bass thickness, crashing drum punctuation and topped with gruff vocals. Splitting Sky is among the dudeliest albums I’ve heard this year – I’m pretty sure my beard grew some just in listening to it for this review – and though Borracho don’t veer too far from their sphere once they establish it, the songs accomplish what they set out to do and then some, rocking with authority and providing at least superficial if not structural shifts to hold listeners in place.
Borracho formed in 2007 as a side-project from reshuffled members of Adam West and Assrockers, and issued their first release as a split with the former in 2008. The ensuing three years has brought demos and shows, and after a recording session with Frank Marchand (engineer for the varied likes of Unorthodox, Nothingface, Deceased and Bob Mould), emerged with Splitting Sky. It’s an album with melodic consciousness but more emphasis on riffs and grooves, and vocalist/guitarist Noah (first name only) delivers lyrics with a throaty “hey whoa yeah” inflection that, for the life of me, I can only refer to as “stoner rock voice.” He’s largely unipolar in his approach, keeping the feel even for a spoken part in 11:35 closer “Plunge” and waiting three minutes for “Never Get it Right” to amass sufficient heaviness before coming on with what is nonetheless one of Splitting Sky’s stronger performances.
Vocalist Neil Fallon of Clutch is an easy comparison point there, but even more appropriate for the earlier cut “Grab the Reins” – the only other song besides “Plunge” to top 10 minutes at 11:05 – where the riffing from Noah and lead guitarist Steve Fisher is even more suited to the “Big News I & II” conversational lyrical style. Marchand’s production seems to push everything as loud as possible, which is never a bad ethic for a rock band of Borracho’s ilk to have, but does so at the sacrifice of some of the dynamic range of the material. “Grab the Reins” and “All in Play,” which follows, each boast several movements, and though the band’s transitions between them are smooth, when Fisher begins his solo section “All in Play,” it’s easy to already be lost in the material so that the last few minutes of the track – which feature some underlying swirls and a payoff that night otherwise be among Splitting Sky’s most satisfying – pass unnoticed and don’t get the appreciation they deserve. That said, “All in Play” to “Never Get it Right” is the most seamless shift on the album, and if the tradeoff is I need to listen a few more times to fully understand what’s preceding, I’ll take it.
Curiously, some of Borracho’s tightest and most engaging material is what they lead with. The curious part about that – because plenty of acts put their strongest material up front under the theory that it’ll hook listeners in to the rest of the album – is that the songs are (at least) roughly half the length of everything else. Opener “Redemption” is an instrumental intro at 1:37, a basic hello that sets up following cut “Concentric Circles,” but even it manages to squeeze in effective stoner riffing and deep low end from bassist Tim Martin before it’s done. And “Concentric Circles” is the only genuine barn-burner rock number on Splitting Sky, with a fiery verse and a chorus that slows to provide ample contradiction. Granted, an album is supposed to feature a breadth of ideas, sounds and (ideally) pacing, but Borracho never quite return to the kind of energy they elicit on “Concentric Circles,” instead fleshing a song like “Bloodsucker” out past seven minutes or plugging away at the late-arriving “Grinder,” which arrives just before the closer and, despite effective use of Fu Manchu cowbell (as if there’s any other kind) from Trubiano, offers little stylistically the band hasn’t already shown.
The issue, then, isn’t necessarily one of lacking quality or scope of the songs – Borracho deliver everything they need to on both levels – but one of structure, in that “Redemption” and “Concentric Circles” brace listeners for something Splitting Sky isn’t trying to deliver. “Bloodsucker” makes for an appropriate beginning to the album proper, and though lyrics like “Why don’t you take off your clothes/I really want you/Why don’t you take off your clothes/So I can haunt you” feel lazy, they nonetheless are memorably presented in a call and response and fitting with the classic rock approach to which Borracho are allied. Drunk at Krug’s Place, I’d probably be on board, especially with the killer layered solo from Fisher that follows (Noah might be in on that as well; it pans channels and sounds like two separate tones), but for an afternoon at the office, it’s somewhat less fitting.
Still, Splitting Sky shows marked promise from Borracho. In a way, I’d almost like to hear them in a rawer, less normalized-feeling production, as I think that might highlight some of the stylistic variety more, but although the album feels long at its 57 minutes, changes like that brought on by “Never Get it Right”’s moodier beginning are entirely welcome and necessary. As “Plunge” earns its title by descending into crashes, feedback and some last-licks acoustic guitar, the arrival of Borracho is definitively stated. The album has received high praise from reviews and listeners alike, and earns every bit of it despite the issues aforementioned. If nothing else, Splitting Sky assures this won’t be the last we hear from Borracho, and with the depths of groove these guys can plunder when they get going, that’s just fine by me.
Tags: Borracho, Unsigned bands, Washington D.C.