Trying to define the sound of Tokyo-based experimental trio Boris is like asking someone their favorite kind of music. It’s everything, it’s nothing in particular … it’s definitely not country.
“I think our music is built on top of an American rock legacy, but our experience within Japanese culture has sort of seeped through the cracks,” says Boris drummer and vocalist Atsuo. “Only people who have been to Japan — and have spent time outside it — can really grasp the true nature of this country. Things are really twisted here, right? It’s hard to explain. Even we don’t know where to start sometimes.”
It may be hard to explain, but Atsuo and his bandmates, guitarist/bassist Takeshi and guitarist Wata (all three provide vocals and each prefer to go by one name), are doing something right. Boris is a critical darling overseas and the band’s vast discography includes 19 studio albums, five live albums and 13 EPs spanning its almost two-decade history. The sound ranges from the slow, heavy drone metal of 1996 debut “Absolutego,” to 1970s-style hard rock on 2002′s “Heavy Rocks,” to the electronic and J-pop-inspired sounds of 2011′s “New Album.”
The band’s latest album, “Noise,” will be out June 18 on Tearbridge Records, a subsidiary of Avex Group (the international release is being handled by Sargent House Records). It’s an attempt to condense Boris’ wide scope into a single record. The result is a streamlined, powerful, and at times beautiful look into the vast well of sounds its members have crafted over the years, from the soaring melodic rock of “Vanilla” and the eight-beat indie-pop of “Taiyo no Baka,” to the pulverizing thrash of “Quicksilver.”
“We decided on the title ‘Noise’ pretty early, at the start of summer last year,” Atsuo explains. “I thought the album was going to be very harsh noise and extreme, but as we worked on it we ended up with an album that’s probably our most musical yet. We decided to keep the title though.”
The title is fitting as it encapsulates the reasoning behind the changing nature of Boris’ sound, as well as the way the band approaches the concept of music.
“Something that sounds like noise to someone else might sound like music to us,” Atsuo says. “And something that sounds like music to someone else might sound really noisy to us. So we thought the ‘Noise’ title we initially chose really fit.”
These remarks remind me of an observation I had when I saw Boris perform in 2011 at I’ll Be Your Mirror, the Japanese edition of underground music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties. The band played “Flare,” an arena-rock- and visual-kei-influenced song on “New Album,” in front of an audience expecting a more ambient and experimental set (renowned noise musician Keiji Haino was playing on a substage at the same time).
“We definitely played ‘Flare’ at that show intentionally,” Atsuo says. “We feel uncomfortable when people look at us as artists. Rock is supposed to be vulgar, but modern rock isn’t thrilling at all. We don’t want to belong anywhere and we want to create our own space ourselves. I know, we’re very twisted (laughs).
“I think bands are really shunning the possibilities of music by being obsessed by an ideal image for their band. We want to break down the rigidity of being in a band. At the same time, we want to expand on the methodology and idea of what it is to be a band, which is why ‘New Album’ was so varied.”
Atsuo explains that “Noise” is the result of a series of events the band went through after releasing “New Album” and its two companion pieces: “Attention Please” and another, new “Heavy Rocks” album. The two records represented the extremes of the Boris sound at the time; the former being a polished, electronic, pop sound, and the latter focusing on hard rock.
“We toured behind those three records, and then Michio Kurihara, who played support guitar for us for six years, had to leave the band at the beginning of last year,” Atsuo says. “At that point, we already had plans for a residency tour, and we were planning on playing as a quartet. But we couldn’t do anything about it, so we decided to play it as a trio. We gained a lot of confidence and determination about being a trio during that tour. We figured that we could take all the experimentation we did as a quartet and bring it all down to play as a trio. I think ‘Noise’ is very much a rock band’s album.”
Upon the album’s completion, the band unveiled new tracks from it one at a time when playing shows in Tokyo. The gradual reveal will culminate at a show this Saturday at Tokyo’s Shindaita Fever, where Boris will play “Noise” in its entirety.
“Albums get shared on the Internet immediately after they’re released, so I think the best preview is to play it live,” Atsuo says. “Rather than just listen to the album, we want people to hear it live and then go into the album from that. I think that’s a real luxury in this modern age.”
[This week, however, U.S. media organization NPR is streaming "Noise" as part of its "First Listen" series.]
Boris has positioned “Noise” as being its definitive record, the one fans should point to when introducing others to its music. And while the band’s musical canvas may be enormous, Atsuo says that at the end of the day the trio is simply doing what they enjoy, perhaps breaking down a few barriers along the way.
“Our generation still had taboos (when it came to stating what music you liked). With the Internet, everything became equal and those taboos are really starting to disappear. But we still had them and we’ve consciously tried to tear them down. Maybe that’s why our tastes seem omnivorous.”
Atsuo says the breaking down of genres in the Internet age has been surprising, even for someone who has been in a band as diverse as his own.
“When we released the video for the song ‘Vanilla,’ I think (website) Stereogum said that it was ‘psych-metal.’ I was like, ‘Is that a genre?’ (laughs). That’s like mixing water and oil! I think it’s really cool that words like that just come out naturally.”
Atsuo says Boris didn’t set out to combine musical genres.
“I think in the middle of all the psychedelica, metal and hardcore, we had noise, and that served as the glue that held everything together. It kind of blurred the lines. That’s why we were able to put a bunch of different elements into one work. We’ve always said that we’re a heavy rock band, but I think we’re actually a noise band,” he says with a laugh. “So the title is really fitting. It’s almost like it’s a self-titled album.”
“Noise” goes on sale June 18. Boris plays Shindaita Fever in Tokyo on June 14 (7 p.m. start; ¥3,200 in advance; 03-6304-7899). For more information, visit www.borisheavyrocks.com