Boris has intrigued me since the first time that I read about ‘em. It was in the early 2000s and, while it may have been on a web forum, it was much more likely from a now-defunct post-rock and experimental record review site. I knew that they took their name from a Melvins tune, I knew that they were Japanese, and I knew they had a hot lady on guitar. Over time, I further learned that they have put out noise records with Merzbow, had released a handful of rumbling drone records, and that they knew how to pull a cute trick now and again -like when they encased gummy worms in the jewel cased spines of certain special-edition versions of their 1998 album Amplifier Worship. Everything about Boris sounded interesting and mysterious. They evoked an intensity and honesty that made them brooding and yet, somehow, not depressing. Just reading the way others talked and wrote about them convinced me that this was a band that was creating and playing music because they needed to. Feedback was not an accident, it was an art. I instinctively knew that this was a band that already meant something to me and I hadn’t heard a single note.
But what finally drew me to Boris and made me a “real” fan was the 2005 stateside release of their album Akuma No Uta on doom/drone label, Southern Lord (the original Japanese release was in 2003). I had read about this record and I knew that it was a transition for the band way before I’d ever even heard the thing. It marked a step away from their reputation as the heavy drone band from the Land of the Rising Sun and a step into the pool of stoner-rock and blown-out speaker sex appeal. Seeing Akuma No Uta’s cover art told me everything that I needed to know: that this band had heart and that this band had humanity.
The cover art for this U.S. version of Akuma No Uta is a play on the cover image from Nick Drake’s 1970 folk album Bryter Layer. [Feel free to brush up on Nick Drake over on Wikipedia. It’ll probably be better than any synopsis I’d pen here.] That a band would do this told me that they had personality, that they were clever, and that they were both okay folks and cool-ass motherfuckers. I mean, both images looked nearly identical. There was nothing kitschy about this and nothing cute. Boris appropriated a depressing folk classic from thirty-plus years ago and, while there was a “nudge-nudge” that the band and fans alike were bonding over our shared recognition of a pop-culture cipher, there was no “wink-wink” that they had anything but respect for the original. There was no thumbs-up and there was no smirk.
Fortunately, for all of us (and for me, especially), Akuma No Uta turned out to be a fantastic record to boot. I immediately liked it, because it married the fuzzed-out drone that I sorta liked (but, wanted to love) with the gyrating sexuality and strutting appeal of acts like bass and drums duo, Death From Above 1979. Prior to this, I had picked up some albums by groups like Growing, Khanate, and Pelican that I really wanted to like, but I didn’t really feel like I had genuinely and sincerely connected to anything that fell under the “drone/doom” umbrella until I heard parts of Akuma. The Japanese trio had crafted a release that contained all of the power chord rock riffs that I’d been steeped in since junior high and all of the inebriated joy and ennui that I’d come to learn about in college. I later came to appreciate the ambient dooooom of Boris’s Amplifier Worship and Altar -their 2006 collaboration with SunnO)))– but those records affected me intellectually, rather than emotionally. Akuma had something else going for it and, even when I was only listening on earbuds while strolling to work, it never failed to touch me.
So, it may sound strange to you that I hadn’t seen Boris live until now, especially considering how frequently they tour. I’ve lived in Seattle for five years now and I’m sure that I’ve missed them no less than four times, within that time period. Something always happened to prevent me from going or something else has always come up. Maybe I was just too lazy. Maybe I was simply bummed that I’d have to go to the show alone. Maybe I didn’t feel like taking the bus across town. Or, maybe, I was just going through another one of my “I don’t know if I’m into this heavy metal thing anymore, I’m just going to listen to John Prine” phases. But now that I have experienced Boris live, I’m sold, and, God willing, the next time that they come around there won’t be another “maybe” to keep me from being there again.
The band’s performance in Seattle last month was fantastic. Of course, it was fun and they played well, but, for me, the best part about the show was really my own sense of surprise and discovery. You see, in spite of everything that I just wrote about Akuma No Uta’s somehow sensual stoner-rock, my knee-jerk reaction was still that Boris was a monolithic drone band. I still had every expectation that I’d walk into Neumos and, once the band hit the stage, they would unleash an hour of fog-machined Orange amp feedback and follow it up with fifteen minutes of 4/4 power chords. Then they’d politely thank us and head back to the green room.
And, yeah, while Boris’s hour-and-twenty-minute set contained moments and cycles of drooooone, moments where the band let every note feed back for just the right length of time before they slid that half-step up the neck, and, while there were times when they stared into space and dreeeeew out those arpeggios, more often than not, the band rocked. And that is to say, they RAWKED! They stretched out the guitar solos and they indulged in effects-pedal-hopping. The majority of their set was a Kill Rock Stars take on red-hued psychedelia. It was fuzzed-out and heavy, and yet, still trashy and joyous and fun. I could hardly believe it when I heard Boris play what I swear were snare drum samples. Hearing the conflation of a vaguely danceable Dark Wave beat and a basement make-out vibe with doubled up fuzz boxes and guitar hum was something that I hadn’t quite expected. To manifest an environment where I felt like I could both sway and leer while, simultaneously, grinning and throwing a fist in the air was somehow genius.
This night made me realize that the reason that I had liked Boris all along is because they take chances. It doesn’t matter if it’s possible that they can’t always quite pull it off ,or if another band out there can do it better – Boris does it because they want to, and you know that because it’s tangible and you can feel it. And by “you” I mean “all of you,” because, from what I could tell, everyone in the crowd loved this show. I saw heads nodding and smiles smiling and frantic grabs for iPhones so that we could try to snap pictures of the nimble-fingered guitar solos and the gaffer’s-taped setlist.
However, the one thing that was absent, and the thing that honestly told me that Boris is a great band, was that I didn’t really feel like most of us knew any of these songs. I mean, of course, I don’t expect anyone to sing along (the lyrics are in Japanese), but I seldom got the feeling that much of the crowd knew the song that was coming from the stage. I don’t think it was just me. We all loved that riff that sounded like “Thirsty and Miserable.” We all felt those washes of guitar fuzz and feedback. The smoke and red lights enveloped each and every one of us, as we heard the nine-minute finale that was piano plinks and drum fills and shoe(h)aze backdrops. How much time did we spend wishing that we had a tattooed girlfriend to touch and a window from which we could stare out into the abyss that is our uncertain future? Hmmm, how about the entire evening’s worth.
I suppose that if I’d been a bigger Boris fan -by which I mean to say a bigger Boris “completist”, – then I might have had a different take. More likely, I’m sure that I would have been equally as impressed, albeit in a different way. I’m glad that I didn’t stand there that night and wish that the band had played “this” instead of “that” or that they didn’t lean as heavily on their 2005/2006 record Pink as I would have liked. The notion that they should have ridden that over-driven bass feedback tone for maybe just thirty seconds more never crossed my mind.
So, I’m glad that I went in exactly as I did. There was nothing to get in the way of the band and nothing to prevent me from seeing the musicians perform as a band. Everything that I witnessed was pure and I didn’t have the wherewithal to second-guess any of it. I saw Orange amps, Matamp heads, and daisy-chained pedal-boards stretched across the stage. Drummer, Atsuo’s Lucite kit was on prominent display. Because I not only didn’t know what song the band might play next, but also didn’t always know what it would sound like, I could spend Boris’s set concentrating on the band members themselves, on their interaction with each other, and with their music at hand. I experienced the music for what it was. It was sustained chords, sincere melodrama, and barely-buttoned black shirts. I could feel the real joy in those “whoos” that Atsuo called out into headset mic and the exuberance in every one of those dozen times that he hyped us up by banging the gong that hung behind him. The stage moves of Boris’s double-necked guitarist, Takeshi may have been few, but I never thought they were anything but legitimate and honest. I had no expectations of anyone’s technical ability and, even if there were a few times when I thought, “Yeah, maybe those fingers coulda pressed just a little bit harder on those strings” I sensed that it didn’t fucking matter, because, together as a group, Boris was a band that did nothing if not communicate themselves, their ambitions, and their hearts to everyone in the audience. They had the confidence in themselves to write whatever they wanted and they knew and respected their fans enough to know that, when they saw us standing there before them, we’d all understand.
Riot Sugar / 8 / Statement / Attention Please / Party Boy / Flare / Spoon / Missing Pieces / Window Shopping / 1970 / PINK / Alleron