Beginner’s Guide is a new feature that aims to provide readers with entry points into the catalogs of artists with complicated, massive, or sometimes difficult discographies. It’s not a completist’s guide, but instead a way of introducing an artist to a listener so that they might be able to navigate through deeper waters after a few spins. So come on in — there’s a lot to discuss.
Just how confounding is Japanese metal trio Boris? In 2008, they released an album titled Smile, which in the United States featured cover art depicting an airplane that looks like it’s on fire, and featured a diverse mix of stoner and psychedelic rock songs. Only they actually released two albums called Smile, for while the U.S. version featured mixes by drummer Atsuo, the Japanese version featured entirely different mixes by Souichiro Nakamura that rendered some of the tracks almost unrecognizable from those released on the American version. Plus the album cover had a yellow heart on it. Oh, but there’s actually a third, live version of Smile, recorded after both of those, which looked like the Japanese version, but gray, and was, of course, live.
The band did a similar thing with the much more limited release of 2006’s Vein, which exists as both a noise album and a crust punk album, despite both having the same name. And their most famous album, Pink, is a considerably different album (by about 20 minutes) depending on whether or not you own the CD or vinyl version. Indeed, Boris’ catalog — which spans dozens and dozens of albums, EPs, singles and splits — is a complex code to decipher. It’s also well worth the effort.
Boris, named for a song on The Melvins’ Bullhead album, take significant influence from the band that gave them their name — in their sludge metal heaviness, their drone doom experimentation, their prolific nature and their ability to baffle audiences as much as enthrall them. They’re one of the most influential metal bands of the ‘00s, and easily one of the least predictable. For some that’s one of their greatest selling points. For others it’s a source of frustration. It doesn’t have to be though. Diving into Boris’ catalog opens up some pretty intense, powerful experiences; it just takes a little patience in figuring out how to navigate.
Boris have anywhere between 15 and 20 full-length albums, depending on whether you count different mixes and limited releases, and countless more EPs and other such minutiae. It seems at times like they’re a band that exists only for record collectors, but most of their best material is readily available without extra markup or obscene eBay price gouging. So, in an effort to guide first-timers through such complex terrain, here’s a five-step beginner’s guide to Boris.
Please note: In the interest of being accessible to readers, all the albums chosen for this feature are currently in print in the United States. A lot of Boris’ recordings are out of print or subject to hefty import prices. So before you ask “Where’s Flood?” keep that in mind.
Listen to our Essential Boris Spotify Playlist.
If you know Boris, then you know Pink. If you want to know Boris, then you need to know Pink. It’s their best-known album, and their best album. After showing off their meaty, riff-heavy rock skills on 2002’s Heavy Rocks and 2003’s Akuma No Uta, Boris created (mostly) an entire album’s worth of noisy, Sabbath-inspired stoner metal. And it’s fucking incredible. Essentially, this is the album that has all of the band’s best hooks, as heard in the soaring chorus of “Pseudo-Bread,” the wild riffs of “Woman on the Screen,” and the fuzzed-out guitar squeals of “Six, Three Times.” They dive into some ultra-heavy sludge on the title track, and a more concise version of their trademark drone on “Blackout.” But nothing here is more breathtaking than “Farewell,” a dense, shoegaze dirge that’s easily the greatest song the band ever wrote. For starters, it’s beautiful, but more importantly, it explores a great range of sounds while retaining the heaviness that the band is known for. Plus, it’s an ideal for the dream pop and shoegaze sounds the group took on a few years later with Attention Please, albeit more affecting and sonically mesmerizing. There’s a lot happening on Pink, all of it amazing. Start here.
Akuma No Uta (2003; Diwphalanx/Southern Lord)
Buy at iTunes
If any of Boris’ albums can go toe-to-toe with the roaring, furious power of Pink, it’s Akuma No Uta, a six-track set of meaty sludge metal and psychedelic jams. Though its album art references Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter, if Akuma No Uta is influenced by a landmark 1970s album, it’s The Stooges’ Fun House, most notably in the shorter, more intense tracks “Ibitsu” and “Furi.” They make a lot of noise, come at the listener with a reckless fury, and amount to some of the most fun Boris has ever concocted. But they’re just one part of a more diverse whole, which includes the breathtaking drone piece “Intro” (which is ten minutes long — pretty massive for an introduction), the lengthy (and gorgeous) psychedelic jam “Naki Kyoku,” largely improvised sludge blues rocker “Ano Onna No Onryou,” and the thunderous closing title track, which begins like Earth and ends like Sabbath (who were briefly called Earth — clever, that). If you’re looking for a sampling of many of Boris’ diverse strengths in one place, this is the place to hear it.
Within the vast, diverse and confusing Boris catalog, one will find that quite a few of the band’s full-length, EP and single releases are splits or collaboration efforts with other bands. They’ve shared 7-inch space with Doomriders and Torche, and worked with the likes of Sunn0))), Merzbow and The Cult’s Ian Astbury on a handful of special releases. The most immediately rewarding of these is Rainbow, a full-length album recorded with Michio Kurihara, guitarist in Japanese psychedelic rock band Ghost (not to be confused with the Swedish band now known as Ghost B.C.). Released within a year of landmark album Pink, Rainbow finds Boris exploring more nuanced compositions, some of which are gentle and pretty (“My Rain”), others which explore Godspeed You! Black Emperor-like post-rock drones (“Shine”), and some that stun with their classic rock grooves (“You Laughed Like a Water Mark”). In fact, it’s almost like a quieter companion piece to Pink in how it explores as many different styles and textures, but without blowing out the amplifiers. Those who prefer Boris at their most booming or droning might find this release harder to warm up to, but ironically, it’s one of their most accessible albums, and listeners not quite ready to dive into their most epic or eardrum-piercing albums would likely find a lot to love on Rainbow.
Amplifier Worship (1998; Mangrove/Southern Lord)
Buy at iTunes
The version of Boris that existed in the late ‘90s hewed much more closely to drone-doom a la Sunn0))) or Khanate than the wilder, more structured sludge and stoner metal that they perfected and polished much later on — or, for that matter, the pop and shoegaze sounds they engaged in most recently. Amplifier Worship, showcasing Boris in drone-doom fashion, is arguably even heavier than their better known releases, and even features a lot more screaming and growling on the part of Atsuo than listeners — even seasoned ones — are used to. For the first 25 minutes, it’s a growling, roaring ambient record, essentially, with anguished screams rising above an artfully dense rumble. But by third track “Hama,” the rock ‘n’ roll Boris kicks into action, firing on all cylinders and crashing out of the demon cave from where they were previously participating in ancient rituals of some sort. In a sense, Amplifier Worship — while definitely not the best album in Boris’ catalog — is one of the most important, bridging their Mötörhead-style rock tunes with their Earth-influenced doom drones in a way that finds the transition between their drone masterpiece Flood and their more straightforward stoner-metal album Pink a little less jarring. (Note: To those wondering why Flood isn’t on this list of recommended Boris albums, it’s due to lack of availability. It’s never been in print in the U.S., despite the band playing the album in full in cities across the country last year, and import copies yield a pretty penny. Motivated listeners should, by all means, track it down, but prepare to lay down some cash.)
This is a controversial choice, but it’s also one I back 100 percent. In 2010, in Boris’ 15th year of releasing music, the band released an EP titled BXI, which paired the group with The Cult’s Ian Astbury. It sounded great in theory, but it also proved more than any prior release in the band’s catalog how limiting stoner rock can be when it goes unchallenged. So Boris challenged it — one year later, they exorcised all of their lingering stoner rock urges on Heavy Rocks (their second album named as such), and spent a much more substantial portion of their energy on the vibrant shoegaze/dream pop material on Attention Please. For some longtime fans that valued Boris for their drone material, the pop songwriting on the album came as a shock, if not a slap in the face. But then again, The Melvins — inarguably the biggest influence on Boris’ career — repeatedly released albums that pissed off their fans, a fact that’s only endeared them further to listeners over time. The Melvins didn’t ever release something that sounded like this, as far as I know, but the interesting thing about Attention Please is that, despite having more danceable beats and prominent vocals from guitarist Wata, it still mostly feels like a Boris album. Industrial clanger “Tokyo Wonder Land” is certainly noisy and dark, while “Party Boy” retains a booming heaviness, even if it is sort of a disco song. And “Les Paul Custom ‘86” is, for all intents and purposes, a stoner rock song — deconstructed, given a peculiar mix and made a lot more interesting. Still, two of the best songs, the title track and “Spoon,” are two of the least characteristically Boris, the former an atmospheric goth-pop head trip and the latter a hook-laden alt-rocker that’s more Smashing Pumpkins than Sleep. Indeed, there are some fans who don’t want to like this album, and I get it. But a good record is a good record, even when it completely obliterates your expectations.
Also Recommended: Boris’ 2008 album Smile, which began this discussion, is one of their most accessible releases, if one of their least cohesive. That doesn’t mean it’s not really good though. It’s just a bit all over the place. Think of it like a Boris mixtape, and it makes a little more sense. For those willing to put in a little more work (and money) to track down some of the band’s harder-to-find gems, seek out 2000’s drone epic Flood, 2002’s riff-rocking Heavy Rocks, and 2003’s transitional doom monster Boris At Last – Feedbacker, the last of which was reissued in the U.S. in 2005 but has since gone out of print again. The time seems ripe for putting all three of these albums back on the North American market.
Advanced Listening: OK, well, we’ve already covered a lot of ground but because of how expansive Boris’ catalog is, there’s still more out there for bolder listeners. The band’s collaborations with Merzbow and Sunn0))) — 2005’s Sun Baked Snow Cave and 2006’s Altar, respectively — are noisy, droning avant garde releases that are epic, if a bit tricky to take as a whole. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s 2011’s New Album, which is Boris’ J-Pop album, full of flashy synths and sensory overload. Basically, it’s the exact opposite of what most fans would have ever expected from the band, and as such it’s an interesting curiosity, and pretty fun. But it’s not at all essential.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.