[Click play above to stream Borracho’s Atacama in its entirety. Album is out Dec. 2 on Kozmik Artifactz.]
When Washington D.C.’s Borracho released their second album, Oculus (review here), in 2013, it was also the first time they’d put together a record as a three-piece. After their 2011 debut, Splitting Sky (review here), guitarist Steve Fisher also took over vocal duties — they did a few shows as an instrumental act first — to fill the vacated role, and with the sophomore LP, he, drummer Mario Trubiano and bassist Tim Martin established themselves as hard-hitting riff-rollers not only capable of recreating the heft of Splitting Sky, but of moving forward with it in a progression that was still only at its starting point. In 2014 and 2015, a series of split releases alongside Boston’s Cortez (review here), Brooklyn’s Eggnogg (review here) and New York’s Geezer (review here) provided encouraging glimpses of where Borracho were headed with their signature “repetitive heavy grooves” — a sort of band slogan — but it’s with their third full-length and Kozmik Artifactz debut, Atacama, that the vision of what they can accomplish as a trio is realized.
Across eight songs and an at-times sprawling 51 minutes engineered and mixed by none other than Frank “The Punisher” Marchand (The Obsessed, many more), Borracho arrive at full thrust on “Gold from Sand,” go out with a whisper (actually the sound of dripping water) on “Last Song” and in between ignite a stylistic swath that Oculus and Splitting Sky and their various short releases could only have guessed at. Be it the sample-laden 10-minute jam “Overload,” which careens and swings and swells and recedes in a successful effort to convey a state of media/cultural/existential saturation or side B’s “Flower,” which brings in Erin Snedecor on guest cello to accompany gentle guitar in sandwiching a section of heavier riffing before rounding out with a memorial prayer, Atacama displays range and command that only prove more unflinching the further out they go.
They’ve also, in Marchand, found an understanding partner in production and mixing. On the faster stretches of “Gold from Sand” — the shortest cut on Atacama at 3:38 and an opener clearly geared toward establishing early momentum before the band digs into “Overload,” which follows immediately and is the longest at 10:44 — or third track “Lost in Time,” or the penultimate bombast of “Shot down, Banged up, Fade Away,” which seems to settle into a nod just in time to, indeed, fade out, only after a near-frenetic lesson in how to use riffs as catharsis, Borracho never lose their sense of atmosphere.
Fisher‘s vocal style — to hear him on studio material is to imagine him on stage, his head craned up at an overhead microphone à la Lemmy, his voice clean but guttural in a post-Hetfield belted-out shout — is largely unipolar, but by pushing it back and coating it in echo and bringing it forward again on “Last Song,” just as by playing it front and center on “Gold from Sand,” it becomes no less a factor in Atacama‘s overarching ambience than Snedecor‘s cello on “Flower.” That’s key evidence of Borracho‘s growth even since Oculus, and a welcome expansion of their take since it makes them a richer band, but one doesn’t even need to go that far to hear the evolution in sound the band has clearly, admirably, undertaken in these tracks.
By the time the all-out fuzz thrust of “Lost in Time” is underway, Fisher‘s guitar scorching out a multi-layer lead over the East-Coast-does-Fu–Manchu rush from Martin and Trubiano before the first verse, they’ve already toyed with structure — “Gold from Sand” is straightforward, where after its long intro, “Overload” has a couple verse/chorus switchoffs early before departing into a more extended jam after six minutes, daring to indulge some psychedelic six-string wash perhaps in an ethic picked up from their splitmates in Geezer — and they only continue to show stylistic and sonic depth as Atacama continues to play out. “Overload” dives back into vocal-topped nod in its final movement and swirls into the buildup start of “Lost in Time,” but even the change in tempo between “Lost in Time” and the subsequent instrumental “Descent,” pulled off via a stretch of feedback and amp noise at the end of the earlier track, is more fluid than it possibly could’ve been three years ago, and it’s still only one sliver of the total flow conjured throughout.
And that’s to say nothing of elements like the flourish bell sounds that come with “Descent”‘s slower roll, the samples in “Overload” and “Flower” — clearly a remembrance — the cello or the tripped-out vibe they hone in the 8:37 “Drifted away from the Sun,” which feeds immediately from “Descent” but might also be where the vinyl side B starts. No less than “Flower” or “Last Song,” though it’s outwardly heavier, “Drifted away from the Sun” presents a bolder, broader Borracho. They’ve never lacked for patience or a willingness to ride a riff, but it’s how they execute that across “Drifted away from the Sun,” with Fisher trading between spoken verses and shouted hooks en route from the initial languid feel toward later, throttled payoff that underscores the point once again, let alone the sudden turn to birdsong that signals the shift into “Flower.” It would be short-selling it to say the range suits them or that they wield it ably. Rather, Atacama — soaking wet despite being named for the driest of deserts — becomes the manifestation of the potential Borracho have shown for the last five years.
The back and forth in “Drifted away from the Sun,” “Flower,” “Shot down, Banged up, Fade Away” and “Last Song” — and indeed within those songs as well at times — brings vibrancy and dynamic to their sound, and they never lose control of it, whether they’re digging into the return-to-earth groove of “Shot down, Banged up, Fade Away” or tossing in Alice in Chains, Sap-style percussion and acoustics on “Last Song.” There isn’t a moment on Atacama on which Borracho haven’t moved forward from where they were three years ago, and the sense of completion that comes with “Last Song” — their evident mindfulness of the album’s construction and execution — is as fitting an end as one could ask. It was fair to expect Borracho‘s third to land with an impact, especially after the formidable achievements of Oculus, but the varied form of that impact on Atacama is more than it would’ve been reasonable to see coming.
They may be beginning to move past the “repetitive heavy grooves” ethic, but in that, they’re also placing themselves in an entirely different league of bands, and while I’d feel even less comfortable predicting where they might go next, I know damn well that it’s worth looking forward to finding out. Their best yet, and one of 2016’s finest in heavy rock and roll.Atacama, Borracho, Borracho Atacama, Kozmik Artifactz, Washington D.C.