For all the much-deserved praise Boris get for their endless experimenting, the Japanese trio has never been afraid of using the types of melodies that hardline noise fans tend to curl their noses at. At times throughout Boris’ prolific career—during any given live performance, even—you sometimes get the impression that there’s a hair band trying to get out from under the rolling waves of feedback and guitar distortion. It is, in fact, this willingness to toss aside stylistic rules that, for better or worse, has defined Boris’ zig-zagging trajectory since 1992.
In the past, Boris have taken shape-shifting to such an extreme that they’ve even released drastically different versions of the same album, including 2005/6’s Pink, 2006’s Vein, and 2008’s Smile. The band has put out so many versions of its myriad releases that Henry Rollins once referred to its discography as “a heaven and hell” for record collectors. It comes as no great shock, then, that Dear started out in a different form.
Originally conceived in 2015 as the album Boris would end their 25-year career with, the writing sessions for Dear “yielded three albums’ worth of material.” Then the band went on tour in 2016 performing Pink, one of their most overtly poppy albums, in full. On returning, drummer/vocalist Atsuo, guitarist/vocalist Wata, and bassist/vocalist Takeshi wrote more songs and whittled the entire pool down to a single record. Oddly, playing the Pink material prompted a shift back towards the heavier style the band is best-known for, but the band issued a press statement saying “we don’t feel comfortable calling Dear a return to our slow and heavy style.” Fair enough, but that’s pretty much what the new album is.
Titled Dear as a musical thank-you letter to fans, the new album finds Boris honing in on their most essential quality: their ability to wrest a kind of endless subtlety from thick layers of distortion and volume. When we look back on Boris’ legacy, what will likely stand out is that, along with the most artful of their drone/sludge peers, Wata and Takeshi made it possible for audiences to discern color and detail within the fabric of guitar tones that had once been thought of as blunt instruments of force.
Again, Boris marry heaviness with melodic vocal lines that fall slightly askew of the cleaving attack of the guitars. It sounds as if they were still seeking to reconcile a relationship between two clashing parties that might be ill-suited for one another after all, but where the odd-couple dynamic becomes the draw. At times, Takeshi has no qualms about exaggerating his inflections to sound like the third-generation grunge singers whose voices rule over modern rock radio. You can easily imagine the straight-ahead riff-rocker “Absolutego,” for example, as an early demo by Alice in Chains, when they were still grooming themselves in the image of ’80s metal.
All three members also counterbalance that approach with less stagey singing that gives the music a sense of reserve to match Takeshi's flamboyance. Dear features a substantial amount of chanting as well. When any of the three members’ voices are treated with heavy reverb—on “Kagero,” “Deadsong,” and “D.O.W.N. (Domination of Waiting Noise.),” for example—the effect is both serene and haunting, as if the band were performing a funeral ceremony for itself. (The noncommittal wording of the band’s official press release suggests that it’s still hedging on whether or not to retire.)
Meanwhile, on “Kagero” and “Deadsong,” demonic, throat-curdling whispers over molasses-slow doom riffs recall Thomas Gabriel Fischer’s tortured lamentations on Celtic Frost’s 2006 doomy comeback Monotheist. Both of these songs, as well as others on the album, contain delicate ambient elements, such as single guitar strings plucked with a certain resonance to resemble piano keys off in the distance. None of these choices reveal anything new about Boris, but the execution is especially discreet—about what you’d expect from a band that’s been exploring for a quarter century and no longer feels the need to force anything. Even the intentionally choppy edits don’t disrupt the album’s graceful flow.
You can read certain lyrics on Dear as the band’s self-reflection on its current position: “It looks like it’s our destiny/It looks like I’ve seen it before” (“Biotope”) or “Nobody wants to pick up that nostalgia/An appalling sight” (“Memento Mori”). But that would probably be a stretch. In truth, Dear doesn’t make any grand, final gestures. It does, however, compel you to wonder again how much more there is to express in the overlap between sludge, drone, doom, and shoegaze—areas that Boris have returned to time after time. After all this time, the answer still isn’t clear. And maybe that’s the beauty of Boris’ story if it does in fact end here.