My favorite band is Boris.
Longtime readers, the kind who have followed me from place to place1, already know that little fact. I discovered them in 2003 in the only way anyone ever discovers new music, from an older brother with considerably cooler music tastes. (To this very day, he has cooler music tastes. There’s no justice in this world.) The are now legends of a sort, respected and name-checked by many mainstream acts, though once upon a time I searched through grainy Geocities sites for photos or bootleg tracks that I would laboriously download at 56k. I recognize that instant access to all of the world’s information is better, but there really was something romantic about the time when liking things was a labor of love….
Boris is a Japanese three-piece band that plays in various realms of heavy experimental music. Their home genre is often debated but my preference would be to refer to them as avant garde metal. Their signature sound, to the degree that they have one, resides at the intersection of drone metal, doom metal, stoner metal, sludge, and ambient. They entrance people with their aggro rhythms and piercing guitar leads, soothe them with chilly ambience, shake them with screeching dissonance, hypnotize them with loops and drones, and drown them in distortion. And they change genres and modes from record to record to a truly remarkable degree, never spending too much time on one sound style, to the point that it can be disorienting to a new listener but which makes their discography versatile and fun to explore.
Every Friday I publish a subscribers-only post, so if you want to check it out, subscribe below
Boris is a band that’s easy to love. They record constantly, up now to 26 studio albums, I believe, along with many collaborations and more bootlegs and live recordings than you’d ever care to track down. They work with many other musicians, and are known to be friendly and generous with other bands, taking on a mentorship capacity for many others working in their little corner of the music business. They are musical craftsmen of an old school variety, never settling, constantly developing their instrumental skills and finding new ways to express themselves instrumentally. They tour relentlessly, and I can tell you from personal experience that they put on an impeccable live show, one which changes completely from one tour to the next. And, crucially, they have preserved a mystery about themselves that you rarely find in today’s world, a world where you are constantly saturated with information about your favorite musicians. They have an aura.
Their composition of personalities is fun too. Takeshi, more or less the band’s frontman, brings the rhythm with his dual-necked guitar and bass combo. Slender and physically beautiful, Takeshi is stoic and remote onstage, rarely acknowledging the crowd beyond an occasional thank you or half-bow. He becomes animated and physical when playing a fast riff, as one would have to, but there is still something utterly controlled about him at all times. If Takeshi is reserved then Wata, the guitar god, is absolutely placid, completely composed and totally indifferent to the crowd. (I don’t know that I’ve ever seen her acknowledge that there even is a crowd in front of her beyond a brief wave at the end of a show.) Thin and striking looking, with cheekbones out of a Renaissance painting, she sometimes seems to barely be moving, methodically working her hands over her instrument as she plays incredibly heavy music incredibly well. I would not call the two of them cold; I would call them cool. Remote. But they are offset perfectly by Atsuo, the drummer. Atsuo is the wildman, the one recklessly slamming a gong, the one whose random exclamations make it onto the records and convey all of the energy that the other two are holding in. It’s Atsuo who directly addresses the crowd, Atsuo who waves his arms in the air to get them to make noise, Atsuo who stands up and howls at the end of a particularly intense song. And Atsuo gives the band its metal credibility, embracing metal’s culture, throwing up the devil’s horns lustily. The last time I saw them play, Atsuo was wearing corpse paint.
What makes Boris stand out - aside from everything else - is the incredible musical diversity I mentioned above. From the straight ahead riff-heavy rock that first enchanted me with 2002’s Heavy Rocks to the spacier, more cerebral but still riffy sounds of 2011’s… Heavy Rocks, from their unpredictable collaborations with noise legend Merzbow to the out-of-left-field Jpop of 2011’s New Album, from the fanciful hypnotic loops of 2000’s Flood to the not-quite-a-parody slick rock production of 2008’s Smile…. There’s a lot. It’s a lot. It’s a lot to take in. People have produced guides like this flowchart for a reason. (Out of date but not half bad!) It can be difficult to know where to start, and with so much variety it’s inevitable that you will like some albums much more than others, perhaps some not at all. For me this is little price to pay for a discography of this depth and breadth, for this much growth over time.
This talent for evolution has helped them defy expectations by continuing to produce surprising and innovative music even as they face their 30th anniversary as a band next year. Just look at their last few years. I personally love 2017’s Dear and genuinely believe it’s an overlooked gem in their discography. (More below.) But some fans saw it as a rehash of what they had done before in the brooding, distortion-filled heavy metal space2. And it was followed by LφVE & EVφL in 2019, an album that I will concede is disappointing; there are some lovely soundscapes and it’s good chillout music but there’s nothing there they haven’t done before. My faith wasn’t shaken or anything but you do have to wonder if people who started playing music together in 1992 are running out of things to say. So what did they do in 2020? They went out and made a straight up hardcore album, titled NO. A good hardcore album. I laughed out loud the first time I heard it. They had defied my expectations again. I fucking love this band.
As happens with all music, my tastes with Boris have evolved over time. I still have deep love for 2005’s Pink, an impossibly fast thrashy masterpiece of speed rock and maybe their most approachable album, but I rarely put it on anymore. The accessibility that once helped draw me in now sounds a little too slick and overproduced; I long for a little more grit. Meanwhile I find their 1996 debut Absolutego, one long blast of noise, has grown on me. New Album is so different that it’s not my thing, but I still reach for it once a year or so to hear that odd sound, pop music bent at just slight enough of an angle to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. There’s always something different to choose. I suppose if you asked what band has been my most intense favorite at any point in my life, it would have to have been Nirvana in my late adolescence. I still have love for them but I have a hard time listening to the music now3. With only three studio albums and some B-sides and live shows, there’s just not that much space to explore different things with Nirvana. With Boris, if you’re tired of one aspect of their sound, just put on another album and listen to something completely different.
Most of you will not like Boris. Though there are plenty of acts I listen to that are harder to listen to, whatever that could mean - Boris is not Endon - they generally make extreme music, heavy, loud, and frequently lacking in traditional notions of harmony and melody. That they also write tracks like “Farewell” is just part of their mythos. With the exception of their true outliers like 20114’s (quite lovely at times) Attention Please, there is precious little in the way of softer, more traditionally-emotional songs, although there are plenty of quieter moments in otherwise loud or abrasive tracks. Though there are vocals on some of their records, many of their songs have no lyrics at all, and most of what is there is of course in Japanese. They are prone to out-and-out dissonance, which many people say is “not music.” Their riffs are incredibly tight and their music is heavy but they are often a little too hybrid or cerebral for more traditional metal fans, and though she is perfectly capable of old-school shredding - I’ve watched her do it - Wata’s lead guitar work tends to be more piercing and melodic than fast and technically difficult. You have to like both formlessness and grating distortion to like much of Boris, and it’s cool if you don’t.
Boris is no longer a hidden gem; no one is, in 2021. The internet, I’m said to say, has revealed all of our secret favorites to the world. The band is now widely recognized and celebrated by influential music critics like Anthony Fantano. They are also acknowledged as a gateway drug to other forms of experimental metal, especially by other musicians in that milieu, many of whom worship them. It’s more and more common for me to meet normies who have heard of Boris. But to me they will always feel new and exotic, something I was blessed to discover, something just for me.
To Start: Dronevil (2005)5
My first hit of Boris heroin was the original Heavy Rocks. For many, it was 2003’s Akuma No Uta. But if you want to discover this band, or to help someone else discover it, I think Dronevil is a great place to start, a deceptively heavy album that’s melodic and as lazy as a Sunday at home. I think most people don’t understand how deeply soothing very heavy music can be. (Drone deities SunnO))) are great for this.) Dronevil is the kind of music the youth could put on to study to. It’s so laconic and spare, the steady and unhurried movements drawling out over the album’s runtime like a cat lazily padding from the couch to a sunbeam. I think anyone can enjoy this album if they are willing to sink blissfully into a couch as they listen; I’d say you can smoke to it, but I’d be referring to opium if I did. Its bone-deep distortion is warm and inviting like the bath you pour to slit your wrists in, with a hard-to-place cowboy movie vibe uniting the disparate threads the band is pulling. Check it out.
The Quintessential Boris: Feedbacker (2003)
Feedbacker is not my favorite Boris album, nor do I necessarily think it’s Boris’s best album. But it is the quintessential Boris album. It’s really an album-length song deal, like Absolutego, but is divided into 5 tracks or movements. Remarkable for a band whose sound is so shifting and diverse, Feedbacker captures everything that Boris is in 44 minutes, with snarling guitars overwhelmed by distortion that drifts off into white noise until it becomes something spacy and unsettling. Each piece builds on itself so naturally you almost don’t notice how wildly it evolves from beginning to end. And the introduction of a recognizable guitar-bass-drums sound emerging from the swirling chaos is like magic. There’s a point where a guitar line appears out of nowhere, the effects and tone so incongruous and foreign to the sounds around it, that it still makes my heart jump a little when I hear it. This is an album you should listen to at least once, no matter who you are.
The Best Collab: Altar, with SunnO))) (2006)
SunnO))) are another band with a legendary reputation for impossibly heavy tones and despair-inducing growl, and there’s an immense amount of raw bass-heavy sonic power on display here at times. And yet there’s something about this record that’s genuinely… optimistic? It makes me want to go on a long journey through an enchanted forest with a merry band of elves and dwarves and such; it’s just that sometimes the forest is very dark. The dronier parts are the kind of music that makes you find the very concept of speeding up the tempo offensive. The sudden appearance of traditional song structure and vocals feels natural and welcome. Pleasant and harsh and soft. It’s a real treat.
To Dress All in Black: Dear (2017)
Just kidding! I know you dress all in black all the time. This one’s a metal album, through and through, even as I acknowledge that it doesn’t fit neatly into any particular metal niche. I dig it so much; it’s just got a lot of crunch, some riffier bangers and some nasty sludge. If I’m in the mood for rock-solid dark and straightforward guitar music there’s nothing on this album that I don’t want to listen to. And despite the complaints of the album being a rehash they try some new things with their sound. On “Dystopia-Vanishing Point,” for example, Wata pulls out guitar heroics that are defiantly sloppy and wild, a real departure for a famously exacting player. Deeply underrated and not a bad choice for a first helping of Boris.
To Space Out to: Warpath (2015)
You guys like Steve Roden?
We live in the poptimist era, though many poptimists seem not to want to admit this. (The attachment to perceiving yourself as an underdog is very powerful and seemingly universal.) As time goes on anything that is not straightforward major-key pop music gets more and more stigmatized. And the term most often deployed against music (or any art) that is experimental or challenging is pretentious. We live in an age of Philistines; I have to remind myself that the pendulum will swing round again. Pretentious is the kind of word that you should (gently) ask people to define if you find they’re using it in a dismissive way. The definition tends to bend to fit whatever people are annoyed about at any given time. But sure, this album is pretentious. Pretentious and excellent. It is, at times, provocatively minimalist, to the point of silence. Long sections sound like someone put a magnet too close to an analog tape. The droney guitar movement obsesses over the same dour chord, while a sound like the wind howling haunts alongside. This one is perhaps only for the more adventurous among you, but the rewards are great if you dig it.
The One to Play for Your Thirteen Year Old Nephew: Heavy Rocks (2002)
If you like this music and find that you return to it often, please consider finding a way to pay the band for it. You can buy albums and merch here or purchase digital music here. Find Boris’s website here and follow them on Instagram here.
And have, incidentally, made my current life financially possible, for which I am so grateful.
Although the vinyl master of In Utero brings a lot out I never heard before. I know that sounds like vinyl-dude wank but it’s true!
If you’re keeping track, yes, they put out three full length albums in 2011 - which they also did in 2003, 2005, and 2006. And there was a Merzbow collaboration that year… you get the idea.
I have no capacity to play this album or Gensho on two turntables at the same time, but I don’t particularly care to. Just the album itself is tasty enough.