American journalists often complain that the Japanese tend to take elements of Western culture, most notably music, and give it a quirky, frequently incomprehensible (at least to Western ears) foreign spin. That's definitely the rap they give to the Japanese rock trio named Boris.
But after 16 years of digging up every sound and twisting almost every genre within the rock lexicon into its own thing, Boris still manages to create something that's distinctly Japanese. It's not that they're creating unique and amazing footholds or thrusting rock music into new and grand directions; it's that they've been able to take any sound they discover and sew it into their own noise.
Boris originally began as three guys and a gal attracted to the ugly allure of hardcore punk and the jerky, mechanical beats of krautrock. They lost a member soon after forming, and the lineup solidified as guitarist Wata, bassist-guitarist Takeshi and drummer Atuso.
The band's first two albums — 1996's Absolutego and 1998's Amplifier Worship — chased after the booming, trudging rumble of sludge metal, a slow-lumbering "walk-through-the-ocean" sound, layered with piercing feedback and loud hammer-thwack drumming. Two years later, they streamlined the tribal sludge on 2000's Flood, producing a mellow wash of clean, repetitive guitar which occasionally brought to mind bubbling Eddie Hazel guitar-burn (a sound they would actually perfect on 2005's Feedbacker).
2002's Heavy Rocks found the band ultimately succumbing to their love of heavy rock and punk, playing around with the constructs of classic rock, both down-tuning it and stretching it beyond its longtime constraints. They continued exploring that same depilated hard rock rumble on 2003's Akuma No Uta, before ultimately reaching perfection on the aforementioned Feedbacker.
At one time, all of Boris's records could only be found via the import bins until the doom-rock savvy underground label Southern Lord began issuing domestic versions several years ago. That new Western visibility suddenly thrust the band into the "indie media darling" spotlight, with "underground"-oriented music magazines suddenly giving the band some ink. And with the American release of the sludge pop-metal-influenced Pink in 2006, Boris became centerpieces in what the indie music press dreadfully pegged "hipster metal" (although it seems that the band is more interested in just following their own ears and watching everyone else eventually catch on).
The only real fault one can find in Boris's use of a campy image and their kitsch-y, playful view of the genres they disassemble is that they sometimes seem a bit distant from their own work. Yet, more often than not, if you can withstand the sheer number of musical personalities they try on — including drone rock and collaborations with noise artists — every hard rock fan should be able to find something within Boris's vast musical catalogue to enjoy.
In April, Southern Lord released the band's last album, Smile (with all winks or apologies to one Mr. Brian Wilson). The disc continues to add new nuance to their sludge-pop sound, while adding a new lush-y shoegaze-like veneer and playful, coy vocals. Its album's final track, the cleverly-titled "[Untitled]," offers slow, plodding clouds of heavy, creaking guitars that don't do so much rumble as they, um, benevolently drag along, hewing tones of bright, enraptured energy, making it one of their most essential statements yet. On the heels of this latest release, Boris has finally embarked on a huge tour of America, which will be stopping in Detroit at St. Andrew's Hall later this month.
It'll be interesting for U.S. fans and novices to catch them on our soil ... but Boris is really just what's on the surface of the Japanese rock scene these days. There are literally hundreds of acts that fall into various hard rock niches but often dwell on the outskirts of obscurity.
A fine example is Acid Mothers Temple from Nagoya, who might be described as the culmination of everything psychedelic. Every album since the group's 1996 inception has been a construction of deliriously full-on rock by way of complete musical deconstruction. Centered around the group's leader, veteran psych rocker Kawabata Makoto, the Acid Mothers usually just toss all of their various influences into a huge pot and then just improvise the results. A lineup constantly in flux, the Acid Mothers have included several different guitarists, bassists and drummers, while their albums have used everything from sarangis and sitars to traditional Japanese instruments like shamisens.
The collective frequently records under different monikers, with members frequently stepping in on each other's side projects. Also this past April, they released (under the frequently used moniker of Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O.) a new album, Recurring Dream and Apocalypse of Darkness, on Important Records. It's a huge, densely stomping shamanistic slow-ride through psychedelic mud waters, dancing crazily through space with incredible ease. And like almost of all their work, it can be summed in three words: "Completely freakin' apeshit!" Within their 12 years of active work, the Acid Mothers have produced well over 50 recordings and there's hardly a country on the planet where they haven't yet reproduced their glorious noise live.
Beyond the wild, psycho-waltz of bands like the Acid Mothers, though, there's also a calmer, more languid side to Japan's new rock. The Tokyo guitar duo Suishou No Fune is a helluva lot more mellow and mainstream ear-friendly when contrasted with the Acid Mothers' constant barrage of fuzz-coated feedback. However, Suishou is still concretely avant-garde in comparison to the more Western experimental post-rock of something like Godspeed You Black Emperor.
Formed in 1999, Suishou has been prodding a very original rock sound that builds its foundation on Albert Ayler-like free jazz scuzz spliced together with repetitious slow-burning feedback that runs alongside flailing, untrained vocals. Theirs often come off as musical soundscapes using guitars that sound like they'd prefer to be Moog synthesizers. The duo's limited CD Mystic Atmosphere (released early last month) showcased their sound at its most relaxed and easy-flowing. If you like more of an abrasive coat to your ambience, however, try their Prayer For Chibi CD (released on Holy Mountain early this year) on for size.
Also chasing slow moving free-rock is LSD-March. Another prolific act that's released at least nine albums since their inception, they could essentially be described as Neil Young by way of the Velvet Underground (for those of you who prefer name-dropping). LSD-March is, in fact, a "downer" trio whose sounds harp on sad, folksy chords and long verses featuring moaning, bastardized Lou Reed-like vocals. The sound then rises (convulses?) into ringing hails of shifty guitar buzz. Lead guitarist Shinsuke Michishita is a genuine pro at repeating the same simple blues lick over and over again (covered in different hues of feedback, no less) and yet having it sound exciting every single time.
Of all LSD-March's albums, 2004's Suddenly, Like Flames arguably features the band at its best. Nevertheless, newer releases, including Constellation of Tragedy (Important, 2007) and the newly-released and daftly-limited Jurando (Reverb Worship, 2008), still offer more than enough to provide interested listeners with aural satisfaction. Collaborations with others are common with most of these Japanese bands — and LSD-March has even released one album of late-night bar psychedelia with the Philadelphia acid rock group Bardo Pond, entitled, simply enough, LSD Pond.
Too many of Japan's experimental acts have gone unnoticed by even underground publications. Boris has become critic's darlings internationally with an acclaim that rivals similar American indie acts. But then, it's easier for Boris, as this band uses more accessible tones of rock than their quintessentially avant-garde brethren.
But experimental shit is "in" these days, right? Maybe with time, more eager American fans will discover what these great foreign acts are brewing. And it sure as hell ain't limited to just the bands featured in this piece. Japan seems to produce scores of oddities who, unlike many of their Western counterparts, are creating vibrant music. There's the drum circle, tribal madness of the Boredoms; the unmitigated full-on "otherness" of veteran Japanese musician Keiji Haino ... It's really way too much to articulate in one article. If you're interested in a little Japanese rock history, try Julian Cope's lively read, JapRockSampler. Hey, if you're tired of modern karaoke like the Hives or the fucking Von Bondies, you might as well give these guys a shot.
Kent Alexander is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to
Boris plays Friday, July 18, at St. Andrews Hall,431 E. Congress, Detroit; 313-961-6358.