Boris brings the noise

Japanese doom trio has come a long way

A great many aesthetic heists over the last century have been justified with the cliché: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Some research (okay, a Google search) yielded the original form of this quotation: “Great poets imitate and improve,” wrote W.H. Davenport Adams in 1892, “whereas small ones steal and spoil.” As far as obscure British poets go, you have to yield some credence to old Adams there. The entire tradition of popular music has been a succession of artists attempting to imitate their heroes; gradually, the truly driven few shed their influences and develop a unique identity. It’s an altogether natural process, and Japanese power trio Boris is proof. The arrow’s arc of their dedication has led the group’s audience through 20-plus years of music that’s decidedly their own, up to and including their latest album, Noise (Sargent House).

The group formed in 1992 as college students in Tokyo, bonding over a mutual affection for American sludge-metal heroes the Melvins. The subject of their shared musical obsession has never been something they’ve kept a secret. For one, the band take their name from a song on the Melvins’ 1991 album Bullhead. Furthermore Boris’ drummer, Atsuo. was allegedly the first Japanese fan to interview the Melvins. And to listen to Boris’ 1996 debut, Absolutego, is to sink into the sort of simultaneously lush and punishing feedback therapy that the Melvins have become semi-famous for mastering. But over the course of about 20 albums, Boris has proven itself to be its own entity, an unpredictable wrecking ball swinging from heavy rock to pure pop without much concern for aesthetic expectations. Now, as seemingly every provincial music scene has at least one band of amplifier worshipers who ought to be paying King Buzzo a hefty tithe, Boris has long since cast off its beginnings as imitators. Boris albums are unmistakably Boris’.

Part of the group’s personality comes from a sense of playful freedom. The title of this newest album, Noise, offers a jarring contrast to its melodic contents. Boris isn’t really trying to troll its listeners; the trio see it all as part of the same mission. “We didn’t really intentionally lead how those songs should be, it just happened in more natural ways,” Atsuo says via a translator. “We just follow what these songs would like to be. We think our audience seems really supportive of what Boris is doing. This album would be a very good starter for those who are not familiar with Boris’ music, because this album covers formulas that are generally recognizable as a certain Boris sound.”

That may be true — especially for the glorious gloom of “Heavy Rain” or the thrashing sprint of “Quiksilver” — but the album also pushes the group’s recent dabblings into pure pop further than the band had previously dared.

For the band’s members, it’s not a question of daring but a consequence of being true to themselves. Over the course of Boris’ first 10 years of releasing albums, they gradually honed their ability to channel sonic ferocity in more songlike directions. Their breakout album, 2005’s Pink, brought them their greatest-yet critical and commercial success in the United States. Since then, each concurrent album has tinkered more with singable choruses and fist-pumping riffs.

To that end, the first track on Noise says it all in its simple title: “Melody.”

“We have experimented a lot, for years, but this time we were trying to do whatever we can do naturally and spontaneously,” Atsuo says. “With a more relaxed mood in the studio, we were trying to be as normal as possible or as organized as possible as a unit. In the previous process, we didn’t finalize song arrangements and didn’t imagine how the songs would evolve until they were finished. This time, we were practicing a lot, arranging songs in detail and demoing all songs before we tracked.” He adds, “We know this is a pretty common way for many bands, but this was so rare for Boris; that was a major difference for us this time.”

The process of transitioning from avid Melvins fans to an international avant-rock institution was based on that sort of amateurism — doing things their own way — which evolved into behaving, as Atsuo puts it, “as normal as possible.”

“We basically started the band just for fun,” he says. “We were thinking maybe it’d be nice if we could just play a gig. Even now, there’s the happiness that we never anticipated, that Boris has been discovered all over the world, or everywhere.”

The new attention hasn’t only come from listeners; Boris has accepted in-studio assistance from an eclectic array of collaborators. Even as their music has taken a long path from the satisfying muck of their noisy origins, the trio continues aligning itself with the most highly regarded purveyors of harsh sound the world over. Boris has released several recordings with Japanese noise legend Merzbow, fellow doom-bringers Sunn O))), and aggressive guitar improviser Keiji Haino.

The band’s ability to attract so many heavy bodies into their orbit stems at least in part from their vigorous work ethic. The band has issued so many sundry recordings that it’s difficult to say just how many they’ve got under their belts. When asked if Boris has anything special planned for their 20th album, Atsuo laughs. “No! We didn’t even know the next album would be our 20th,” he says. “Our 21st album may be released after 22nd one — an actual releasing order isn’t necessarily the same as what we have finished,” Atsuo adds. “One album that we have in mind is a one-song, 16-minute piece, but it would make more sense to call it a single because it’s just one long song. At the same time, we can call it ‘the album’ if that would capture their work more correctly and aesthetically. In any case, we really have no idea what would be 20th or 19th.”

In light of the group’s longstanding love for collaboration, and since the Melvins are known for a love of working with a wide cast of characters, would a Melvins-Boris album be a possibility in the future? “If the Melvins want to do it, Boris wants to do it, too!” Atsuo says.

He continues by going down a fanboy rabbit hole: “A few years ago the Melvins contributed a song to some compilation album, a song that is called “Nothing,” that is complete silence. The Melvins didn’t play anything on it. For our potential collaboration with the Melvins, if the Melvins start playing, Boris would play nothing while Melvins are playing, because there is no room or space for Boris to make any sounds with them. This may be an interesting idea because Boris respects the Melvins — a lot.”