The Japanese word gō’on can be rendered in English as a “roaring sound.” It’s often used to describe the loud levels of volume at a concert, which typically hit around 120 decibels.
When rock trio Boris and noise musician Merzbow performed at the 300-capacity Shindaita Fever venue in Tokyo last year in November, however, the volume reportedly reached levels as high as 130.6 db (a single shotgun blast is around 140 db). Suddenly, the word “gō’on” became quite literal, and had some critics questioning whether other groups were truly deserving of the descriptor.
“We’ve been doing this for 20 years. We sort of risk life and limb; we carry a lot of amps and there are times when we actually do get sick from the loudness,” says Atsuo, Boris’ drummer and de-facto spokesperson. “But during the show it feels good. Loud sounds that take over everything can make the air shake, until nothing can shake anymore. It’s as if the air, our bodies and the room become one. There’s a certain euphoria from blurring those lines. It’s a bit like touching the audience with sound.”
These two roaring titans are set to release a collaboration album on March 16 via Daymare Recordings (American label Relapse Records is handling the international side). Titled “Gensho,” which means “phenomenon” in Japanese, the album is the seventh collaboration between Boris — Atsuo, guitarist Wata and guitarist/bassist Takeshi (all three handle vocal duties and go by single names only) — and Merzbow, the “vegan straight-edge noise project” of Masami Akita, who has been active since 1979.
The relationship between the two goes back to the late ’90s when Boris performed a live set with Merzbow after the band had released its first album, the droning single-tracked “Absolutego.” Since then, the pair have released a number of albums together, including original compositions on albums such as “Sun Baked Snow Cave” and records in which Merzbow adds his signature noise to existing Boris songs, such as on the live album “Rock Dream.”
“My first impression was that a band with a very dense sound had emerged in Tokyo,” says Merzbow via e-mail about his first encounter with Boris. “That was the main motivator for wanting to collaborate with them. As they’ve gone on, they’ve come to show that not only are they heavy, but they are a high-quality rock band with flexibility for trying out new ideas. I think that’s what has made me want to work with them for such a long time.”
“Gensho” is different from previous collaborations, though. Rather than releasing a single disc of tracks completely mixed together, the album is instead being released as a two-disc set — one disc featuring only Boris and the other featuring Merzbow. The idea is to play the two discs on separate audio systems simultaneously for a “surround sound” effect.
“The main point of this concept is that the listener participates,” Atsuo explains. “Moving the volume up and down on a fader can change the music drastically. I thought it would be interesting if the listener could participate with us and create new music every time they listen with just a simple difference in volume or timing.”
Perhaps the most famous example of multiple records designed to be played simultaneously is The Flaming Lips’ “Zaireeka” album, in which the listener would play four discs at the same time. Boris are no stranger to this format, having released the two-disc “Dronevil” album in 2005. The idea of having two different artists on the same album, however, is what sets “Gensho” apart.
The Boris disc contains newly recorded drumless versions of previously released songs. Included are fan favorite “Farewell,” off of 2005’s “Pink,” and the Melvins-inspired drone jams “Huge” and “Vomitself” from “Amplifier Worship.” A cover of My Bloody Valentine’s “Sometimes” is also thrown into the mix, perhaps as a nod to another band truly worthy of the gō‘on label.
The Merzbow disc contains four entirely new compositions. (The Japanese version of the album includes two bonus discs featuring a live recording of the aforementioned concert at Fever.)
The album is reminiscent of a drumless live set Boris performed for the video-streaming music platform Boiler Room in June 2014, which the band invited Merzbow to be a guest performer at. The performance inspired Boris to recorded its drumless tracks for “Gensho” soon after. Only the track lengths were decided upon before they were passed over to Merzbow.
“That was another extreme experience we had never done before. After the show we couldn’t drive straight back home. We had to stop the car and take a nap,” says Atsuo with a laugh. “Everything had vibrated. Even our brains.”
For Boris, “Gensho” comes out after a year filled with one-off collaboration gigs with other artists, from dubstep producer Goth-Trad to black metal and noise quintet Endon. With the latter, Boris performed a collaboration set titled “New Noise Literacy,” and along with three albums sharing that same title, attempted to present a new interpretation of noise music.
“People younger than us listen to noise as music,” Atsuo says. “People like Merzbow created the genre of noise, but the way younger people interpret the word is different. We wanted to present a new way of listening to and understanding noise as the generation who listened to it as music.”
“Gensho” could be seen as an extension of such efforts, the area where two generations meet, with Boris serving as the dividing line between them.
“I’m part of the blues generation of the ’60s and ’70s, and grew up infused with the idea that the roots of rock music are in blues music, or that it’s music of the soul,” Merzbow says. “I felt that it was a bit cheap, and I started playing noise to be in a place cut off from any sort of musical roots.”
“What I think of as blues music is probably native to those other countries,” Atsuo says. “For our generation, noise is music that’s indigenous to Japan. So I like to think of noise music as the equivalent to the blues for Japanese people.”
“Gensho” is in stores on March 16. Boris plays WWW in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, with taffy, 6eyes and more on March 26 (1:30 p.m. start; ¥4,000 in advance; 03-3770-6900). Merzbow plays Loft in Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, with Bellring Girls Heart on March 27 (6 p.m. start; ¥2,500 in advance; 03-5272-0382). For more information, visit www.merzbow.net or www.borisheavyrocks.com.