Boris, the legendary Japanese three-piece sonic entity, is celebrating its 25th anniversary by making a thank-you record to fans and bringing it to life with an extensive world tour, which ended its European portion on a Friday night in Helsinki, after an intense showcase of doom and gloom.
Even though the group has reached a very respectable age of quarter of a century, they are still constantly experimenting: whether by dramatically switching their musical style from Melvins (from whom the band took their name from) and Sunn O)))-influenced sludge-noise-drone-metal (Amplifier Worship, 1998) to a more Blue Cheer-inspired psychedelic rock (Pink, 2005) while at the same flirting with J-pop (Attention Please, 2011), or messing with collectors and fans alike by putting out multiple albums in one year – and releasing drastically different versions of each of them. Indeed their vast discography, which Henry Rollins describes as “a heaven and hell for collector scum”, is a story of its own.
This, however, makes Boris a wonderfully weird and unpredictable mess, which is constantly shifting and transforming into something that never gets completed – most likely the key ingredient for their longevity. There’s plenty to dig into here.
This is the third time the Tokyo-based trio has performed in Helsinki, previous gig being only 9 months ago, where Boris played their tour de force record PINK (2005) in its entirety to an almost sold out Tavastia club. Although the band showed no signs of slowing down when gunning down their arena-level hard rock show last year, that’s ironically exactly what was in store for this tour – but in the best possible sense.
But no matter what form Boris takes – which can range from drumless experimental nights of drone and noise with their fellow Japanese noise terrorist Merzbow to them playing one of their psychedelic single track albums in full (Feedbacker, 2003) – you’ll always get to witness Wata; petite but tinnitus-inducingly loud guitar heroine shredding her Gibson Les Paul custom, vocalist Takeshi; the hidden front man headbanging over his rare double-necked Rickenbacker guitar/bass and Atsuo; band’s spokesman thunderously banging his drum set with a giant gong behind him, while also handling some of the vocal duties through his wireless headset mic. Not much else is known of the band, since they tend to enjoy the enigma surrounding them. But the most well-known trait or theirs is the thick and massive sound, which is pushed out by an impressive wall of gorgeous Orange and Sunn amplifiers, along with a litany of effect pedals for plenty of distortion, delay and fuzz. And it is loud – very loud – but never overblown, and you can hear that there are many things going on in the mix. This one is truly for the audiophiles.
The 25th anniversary album Dear (2017), a sort of sonic love letter to fans, is the only thing on the menu (excluding the encore). Naturally the first song of the evening is also the album’s opener (D.O.W.N. -Domination of Waiting Noise-), which summons the vibrating pulse, where low-tuned droning guitars slowly hammer out prolonged doom chords, and at times giving some air for moments of celestial beauty and slow-moving harmonies, while the drums maintain the sluggish pace with surgically precise interplay and focus between downbeats. Things get even meaner – and heavier – on the next number (aptly titled DEADSONG) where Takeshi’s cathartic vocals and occasional death growls lead things slowly towards the abysmal void. On Kagero things calm down to a whisper, and for a split moment there’s nothing but soft rumbling in the distance and Wata playing her digital accordion. Everything feels highly cinematic, and it is no wonder that the indie movie pioneer Jim Jarmusch included their music very openly in his 2009 movie The Limits of Control. Perhaps in this situations the inspiration has been working vice versa. After all, Dear is an extremely atmospheric work of experimental avant-garde metal, where everything moves with snail speed. Naturally this was the form Boris inhabited tonight, since the album was played in its entirety. Only the evening’s third song Absolutego (also the title of their first album) broke the spell by being the solo example of a somewhat more traditional headbanging stoner metal. Surprisingly, Wata’s famous wailing, Jimi Hendrix-style solos were unusually sparse; bursting out properly only once during the wonderfully bittersweet Dystopia -Vanishing Point-, which was also the lengthiest piece of the evening, clocking in at over 10 minutes.
Boris plays seamlessly and with such quality and conviction, that they sound vastly bigger than they actually are. The stage morphed into a giant bubbling and smoking cauldron, into which the band would slowly pour the tar-like sludge. On the set’s final bit Boris creates a menacingly unsettling build-up by finally detonating the lot of it into a full-on blast of guitar noise, and cranking everything up to 11. These are the singularity-reaching payoffs, which the group is well-known for; mind-melting sound pressure, a dense bloom dry ice, manically flickering strobe lights and Atsuo’s gong smash tearing off the final restraints from the previously controlled chaos, crushing the sound until there are no structure left. “Noise is a vital part of the Japanese mentality, particularly when making music. Noise is Japanese blues”, stated Atsuo in one of band’s rare interviews when contemplating their relationship with Japanoise (the noise music scene of Japan, started in the late 1970s). And that is essentially the Boris love affair: toying with the extremes.
After well-deserved round of applause, and raising a toast with Finnish beer, the rumbling shoegaze-lullaby Farewell (from Pink) is given as the final icing on the cake.
All in all, even after 20+ albums, multiple EPs, ridiculously limited releases and genre-hopping, Boris still feels like an exciting and original act. Not many music groups have been able to pull off such adventurous experiments over the years, but that’s precisely where Boris feels most at home. They clearly still have a large, diverse and devoted fan base of alternative music lovers, and they’re all eagerly waiting for the band to take everyone by surprise and grabbing them along for the ride. Originally Dear was meant to be their final album, but the band eventually changed their minds about it, after being thoroughly inspired by their previous Pink tour and recording three album’s worth of new material. Hopefully this is a recurring theme, and we will get to witness Boris do what they do best – which is just about anything – for another 25 years. With them it’s always expecting the unexpected.
Arigato, Boris! And thank you for all the years so far! Kampai!