Borracho, Oculus: Into the Eye

Released digitally as a prelude to vinyl coming this fall on Strange Magic Records in the US and No Balls Records in Germany, Oculus is the second full-length album from Washington, D.C.-based heavy riffers Borracho. Strictly speaking, it’s the first new material they’ve presented since their 2011 debut, Splitting Sky (review here), though they’ve had numerous outings between to keep up the rather considerable momentum that album brought them, including the Circulos Concentricos 7″, A 10″ EP for the track “Plunge/Return,” which was left off the vinyl version of Splitting Sky, and earlier this year, a 7″ called Mob Gathering that included some of their earliest recordings, but more important, it’s the first release they’ve had as a trio since losing guitarist/vocalist Noah last year. Continuing on playing shows instrumentally at first, guitarist Steve Fisher gradually stepped into the vocal role, backed occasionally as Noah was by bassist Tim Martin, with Mario Trubiano holding down the band’s prime stonerly groove on drums. That’s not the only difference either. Where Splitting Sky reached close to an hour in length, as much as it continues to follow Borracho‘s rallying cry of “repetitive heavy grooves,” Oculus checks in at a vinyl-prime 35:49, over 21 minutes shorter, and is comprised of four extended tracks and the brief penultimate “Eye” noisy instrumental interlude leading the way to closer “I’ve Come for it All.” In no small part because of its length, Splitting Sky was a big time grower for me, but between the more concise feel of Oculus and the ease with which Fisher has made the transition to handling vocals in addition to guitar, the second outing makes an immediate positive impression. As regards the overall sound of it and the production, Borracho‘s methodology hasn’t much changed — strong hooks over heavy riffs — and the recording here sounds full and professional as did that of Splitting Sky, but with two years of growth, some touring and the experience of the first album behind them, Oculus wins out over its predecessor in every category but length — and in terms of letting each track make the most lasting individual impression, it wins out in that as well.

The album takes its title from the Latin word for eye, though in what context Borracho mean to use it — the phrase “eye of the storm” comes to mind first, particularly with the shifts they’ve undergone in the roughly two years since their first album — I don’t know. Opener “Empty” (7:30) starts out calmly enough, with Martin setting an intro pattern through the bassline that Trubiano soon punctuates, Fisher following shortly thereafter with ambient lead notes. There is a layer early into the track either of synth or far-back vocals that adds to the atmosphere, and soon, Borracho are underway with a build and a crash into thick, open-feeling riffing that serves as the central progression for most of the song, the band building, working around it, returning, playing off a riff worthy of the attention over the course of more than the first four minutes until two hits right around 4:40 bring in a faster, purely stoner figure that will carry them through the remainder. It’s almost as though “Empty” were two tracks, the one leading to the next, but ultimately it matters little, since what though it actually makes up most of the track turns out to be the intro is so easy to get lost in and since Fisher‘s vocals are so right on once the verse starts. With Martin‘s righteously thickened Fu Manchu groove behind, he follows the riff for the verse and switches to layered shouting in the chorus. Stylistically and on paper, it’s not so different from what Noah did on Splitting Sky, but Fisher‘s approach is less gravelly and seems natural in the context of the material. That proves no less the case as highlight “Know the Score” (7:18) starts up with a light Southern touch of acoustic guitar and unfolds to one of Oculus‘ several landmark riffs. Fisher is more immediately forward, and he, Trubiano and Martin are locked into the movement of the song from the start, but the turn to the chorus makes for a genuine demonstration both of their chemistry and of the strength in songcraft that has led to their finding such welcome reception in the heavy rock underground. It is organic, readily familiar, more complex than it sounds and more than ably delivered. Following a round of “yeah-yeah”s the second time through, a long-sustained organ note — a little out of nowhere but not at all interrupting the flow — eases the transition into the insistent next section, the line “I think you missed again” repeated as Borracho march past the midpoint en route to a raucous bridge that returns to the chorus riff. As they build up, Trubiano tosses in some double-kick to add to the rush, and when they turn back to the initial verse riff and follow with a final chorus, it’s a surprise and a bookend that once again shows their songwriting prowess. The end with a crash and a well-earned ringout.

It inherently can’t be on a vinyl, where it will no doubt start off side B, but “Stockpile” (10:47) makes a rousing centerpiece on the linear (digital; no plans for a CD) version of Oculus. Starting with a patiently slow verse riff and a fervent “whoa” from Fisher, “Stockpile” is both the longest cut on the album and, as regards its approach, the closest-seeming to what Borracho brought out on their debut. I don’t know if it’s older than the other songs here — the interview questions practically write themselves sometimes — but following “Know the Score”‘s pattern of smooth verse/chorus transitions and effective layering, it’s an effectively nod-inducing groove that, though it’s not the first one to come up on the album, does a good job of summarizing the straightforward appeal of Borracho‘s sound then and now. They’re not expanding the bounds of genre necessarily, but they are making their mark on their own sound within them, and “Stockpile” is another example of how inviting their material can be, Trubiano and Martin unhurried in the rhythm section and the track dedicating much of the time difference between it and the other songs to a couple heady psychedelic instrumental jams. Even here though, Borracho don’t lose sight of the chorus at the center of the centerpiece, and though it’s morphed some, they still tie up any loose ends as “Stockpile” comes to its conclusion, capping with a few quiet-but-tense cycles and Trubiano‘s toms to bleed directly into the noisier effects swell of “Eye” (2:03), which is as close as they come to a title-track. Fisher shouts deep in the mix — not lyrics, or at least not discernible lyrics — and there are flourishes of guitar and bass, but it’s not until there’s about 30 seconds left that “Eye” hits on an actual riff. Still, the ambient break is a welcome moment of respite coming off “Stockpile” and the riff that emerges from that psychedelic murk serves as an introduction to the finale “I’ve Come for it All” (8:15), so if it’s meant as a transition, it’s one well made. Martin and Trubiano drop out as “I’ve Come for it All” kicks in, letting Fisher introduce the verse riff, but return quickly, and the band proves as they push through the verse and first chorus to be totally in command of the motor-ready progression, and that includes the vocals, which by the time the second verse rolls around — and it does roll, make no mistake — are swaggering.

Fitting that Fisher‘s most confident performance as a singer should come last on the album, since it bodes so well for their future as a trio, but Borracho have their eyes on more immediate concerns. “I’ve Come for it All” trades off its verse and chorus twice before moving into a section of intriguing stutter-stops and using the subsequent instrumental chorus refrain to prelude a touch of tambourine boogie before the vocals return. Riff-following whoas and yeahs ensue, still in the chorus, and a multi-layer guitar solo rises to the fore from there at leads the final instrumental thrust that fills the remainder of the album, the last couple minutes topping off with a long, minute-plus fade. Part of me wonders how jarring it might’ve been for Borracho to end that jam cold and jerk their listeners back to reality, but the gradual easing out of that fade ultimately makes more sense with the crux of Oculus, which is altogether friendlier in its intent and more about bringing listeners in with tonal warmth and rich grooving than shocking with sudden cold silence. In any case, what Fisher, Martin and Trubiano have proven with their second outing is that not only can they survive as a three-piece, but that they can flourish and continue to grow as a band. The potential that shone through in Splitting Sky tracks like “Grab the Reins” and “All in Play” finds its answer here, and Borracho seem to be able to balance an uncompromising grip on their aesthetic with a will to add variety to songs that are nonetheless catchy and consistent. Their last album was subject to no shortage of hyperbole, and I’d be surprised if this one isn’t as well, but through whatever inflated praise it might receive, Borracho‘s work on Oculus stands as one of the year’s best heavy rock records.

Borracho, Oculus (2013)

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2 Responses to “Borracho, Oculus: Into the Eye”

  1. […] work on Oculus stands as one of the year’s best heavy rock records.” (July 26 2013. Read the full review) Tweet This entry was written by admin, posted on July 30, 2013 at 7:59 pm, filed under Reviews […]

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