Low End Times
Boris's Overpowering Dirges
In the past year, drone/doom metal has gone from being the soundtrack of choice for stoner misanthropy to being a subject worthy of high-minded (as opposed to just high) literary types like The Believer. Twenty years ago (the) Melvins were Thriftway employees; ten years ago Sleep couldn't get their magnum opus released to save their band's life; but today, bands like SUNN O))) and Growing are being hailed as cerebral, avant-garde artists rather than derided as bong-huffing, riff-worshipping Neanderthals. King Buzzo is a revered elder statesman.
Riding this wave of popular and critical acceptance are Japan's subgenre-hopping, avant-metal band Boris. Hardly newcomers to the drone party, Boris have been making noise for over a decade, although their albums have only become available domestically in the last five years. Esteemed experimental-metal label Southern Lord has been steadily reissuing Boris's limited-run releases in the states, and with each album the lag time between original and reissue shrinks (their debut took five years to import; their most recent album, Pink, took only one).
The trio (consisting of Atsuo on drums and vocals, Wata on guitar, and Takeshi on bass, guitars, and vocals) have been busy for the past year collaborating and touring with label mates SUNN O))), and touring behind their own critically acclaimed Pink.
Boris drew inspiration from protogrunge gods (the) Melvins, taking their name from the song off 1991's Bullhead, and their sludgy, speaker-rattling sound nods heavily to their namesake. But the relationship isn't as direct as SUNN O)))'s early incarnation as an Earth tribute band; it's more like (the) Melvins were an atomic blast, and Boris are the Godzilla they awoke.
The atomic-bomb/Godzilla metaphor is more than just a handy origin story; on a strictly sonic level, Boris, like (the) Melvins, explore the crushing, obliterative powers of bass and distortion at city-leveling scales.
Boris released their debut album, Absolutego, in Japan a decade ago, but it only became available here in 2001. The album is a sprawling stoner epic in the vein of Sleep's infamous Jerusalem, an hour-plus meditation on distortion in which single tones and chords stretch on for minutes on end, reverberating and eventually collapsing beneath their own weight. When the barely audible screams kick in around the 26-minute mark, you're more than ready for them. By the time an hour has passed and only strains of feedback remain, the average listener's brain will have long since been reduced to rubble.
Amplifier Worship finds the band playing with more conventional song structures and expanding into more varied musical territory. Vocals also play a more prominent role on this album, from the apocalyptic screaming of "Huge" and "Ganbou-Ki" to the Fugazi-esque rapping of "Hama." The album opens with "Huge," a relatively short sludgefest (at about nine minutes) that picks up the patient drone of Absolutego. "Ganbou-Ki" includes a bass-heavy tribal drum jam and an ambient interlude, and "Kuruimizu" contains both speed metal and delicate acoustics. "Vomitself" wraps things up with 17 minutes of sedated strumming and rumbling distortion.
Akuma No Uta—the one with the Nick Drake parody cover—begins with the expected dirge of "Introduction" before abandoning the band's familiar crawl for the thickly distorted speed metal of "Ibitsu" and "Furi" (each clocking in at barely over three minutes), the ambient passage "Naki Kyoku," and the more straight-ahead rock of "Ano Onna No Onryou" and "Akuma No Uta."
With their most recent release, Pink, Boris further diversify their musical styles while still retaining the molten core of their sound. The songs are generally shorter than on their previous full-lengths, with the notable exception of closing track "Just Abandoned My-Self," and the band relies more on soaring psychedelia ("Pink," "Farewell") and psychotic speed metal ("Electric," "Woman on the Screen," "Pseudo-Bread") than on austere drone.
Altar, their collaboration with SUNN O))), more than satisfies that drone deficiency with the kind of bowel-churning tones for which both bands have become known. But the collaboration also provides some surprises, such as on the gorgeous, wispy ballad "The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)."
Boris shapeshift almost schizophrenically from drone to metal to rock to noise, but they always maintain an ear for punishing low frequencies and a talent for hiding improbably beautiful moments and catchy riffs in their overdriven cacophony.