July 11 2014 05:12 PM

Tokyo trio obliterates expectations


For musicians, there are few rewards to be reaped from presenting something truly challenging to the listener. Nobody ever went platinum by following her or his most avant-garde instincts. Post-modernism doesn't bring in the licensing royalties, and choosing the path of most resistance generally doesn't put asses in the seats.

The current state of the music industry only complicates matters. Thanks to streaming services like Spotify, it's easier than ever to access all the music you could possibly ever want. So without that catchy hook to grab the listener's ear, there's less incentive for a consumer to exercise patience. Between the instant-satisfaction music economy and the unusually homogenized Billboard charts of the moment, there just isn't much demand for artists who don't offer easy answers or points of entry.

That's all the more reason why I'm thankful for bands like Boris. Named after an epic track by The Melvins, Boris isn't a band that entirely makes sense on paper. Their albums don't have a lot in common, and many of them are released as two different versions, with different track lists and different mixes, released in different markets. And as they evolve and mature, the distance between the styles of each of their records only seems to grow more vast.

The easiest and most glib way to describe the type of music the Tokyo trio plays is to refer to the title of their fourth album, Heavy Rocks. Boris covers a broader spectrum of heavy rock than just about any other band performing today, and from the beginning, their approach to Marshall stack-blowing volume hasn't in any way resembled ordinary. Their debut album, 1996's Absolutego, is one 60-minute track of feedback and bowel-distressing low end that set an intense tone for nearly two decades of amplifier-driven wizardry to follow. 

Absolutego only scratched the surface of their psychedelic, colossal, double-necked, shape-shifting aural assault, however. Indeed, the band has been known to indulge in sprawling flights of distorted atmosphere, which reached a peak of sorts on their four-part opus, Flood. But when Boris rocks, they fucking rock, and one only need listen to the Stooges-inspired anthems on 2003's Akuma No Uta, or the diverse and hook-laden highlights of their greatest achievement to date—2005's Pink—to hear what happens when a group this powerful tears into some honest-to-god songs.

From there, things get a lot more confusing. In a recent interview with the website The Quietus, a member of the band said, "I think we're definitely one of the hardest bands in the world to define." And looking back at the course of their catalog since 2006, they've certainly made good on that promise. First, the group collaborated with Japanese noise titan Merzbow and drone ghouls Sunn0))), released an unusually mellow psychedelic-rock record called Rainbow and briefly formed super-group BXI with The Cult's Ian Astbury. And then things got really weird.

Boris play Thursday, July 24 at The Casbah

In 2011, Boris released a trio of albums that didn't just catch fans off guard; it also very likely rubbed a few of them the wrong way. The first, titled Heavy Rocks (just like their fourth album, you'll recall), lived up to its name. Attention Please, however, tossed aside their colossal rock and metal sound in favor of a sultry, dark disco and dream pop—and a very good one at that. But this didn't go over well with fans of their heavier material. Scene Point Blank called it "unexpectedly terrible" and Dusted described the songs as "drowsy, forgettable, head-nodding throwaways." Weirder still was the third of the batch, New Album, which reconfigured songs from Attention Please and Heavy Rocks into hyperactive, exclamation-addled J-pop anthems. Boris isn't just a band that's interested in innovating—it's one that obliterates expectations.

After charting a path of only left turns, the band's new album, Noise, finds them returning to the "heavy rocks" sound that earned them a cult following in the first place. It's a much more straightforward album than Boris has released in some time. It has hooks, choruses, meaty riffs and plenty of melody to spare. Hell, it's even catchy. But it's also not a repeat of Pink or Akuma No Uta. Its opener, "Melody," is much closer to Sunny Day Real Estate than The Melvins, whereas its 18-minute centerpiece, "Angel," is a slowly moving post-rock monolith akin to Godspeed You! Black Emperor. And toward the end, the band races headfirst into an epic hardcore sound on "Quicksilver." Noise sounds like Boris alright—if only because what Boris sounds like has such a loose definition.

In an interview with Echoes and Dust, drummer Atsuo said, "Each album for Boris makes a new world for Boris individually." And each of those new worlds is part of an ever-expanding galaxy that has no conceivable boundary. It seems fairly safe to say that once you hear a Boris album, you'll never hear them record something quite like it again.

There's something comforting about that.

Email jefft@sdcitybeat.com or follow him at @1000TimesJeff