Boris and Other Myths - By Volume

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Boris and Other Myths

Robin Smith explores musical "moments" and the nature of personal growth. Author: on April 10, 2013
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Boris elicit all the feelings of a 15 year-old music novice to me. I’m sitting in front of my computer most days, an enthusiast ready to be turned geek. I’m searching websites for reviews of early Starsailor albums and talking about The Bends. Later I’ll feel my bedroom shake to my first Godspeed songs, and see words like “neo-classical!” and “post-rock!” lit up in bright lights, like there’s nothing more above and beyond than an album without a London snarl or any lyric. I’m discovering the “capacities” of music.

This is probably my most distinct memory in music. And that’s pathetic. Most people will attach theirs to their favourite songs hitting them like a freight train; Adrian Hertzberg, friend of By Volume, recently wrote a beautiful piece about how The Weakerthans’ “One Great City” became ingrained in his consciousness forever after listening to it under a Vancouver skyline. A friend of mine recently told me how Basement Jaxx’s dance throwback “Red Alert” died with him the day he heard it played while working days at a kiev factory – precisely, the “step in!” hollered at a moment one would be wont to repress. I’ve heard those clichés about break-ups healed sitting by speakers to the tunes of the Wrens. But my defining moment in music is a lethargic, gruesome kicker, one from 15 to 17, sitting by a computer with the distortion hanging around my ears.

This began with Radiohead, for sure, on the day my siblings chimed in to grab me a copy of their EMI boxset. I say their boxset, but any conversation surrounding it makes me sound like an asshole – essentially, I bought from EMI days after they left it for good. I didn’t understand the value of a good sound system, or even the difference between MP3 and FLAC (still don’t, really), and so I sat in front of my family’s oversized desktop playing through their albums while I frequented old video games as a background distraction. According to – another touchstone in my music interests, teaching me how to alter and refine my tastes like a true musical sociopath – I played them two thousand times over the next six months, learning The Bends and OK Computer by heart, then moving on to Kid A in the backseat with my iPod on, thinking “Idioteque.” In a way, I like to think I discovered Kid A the same way people did back in 2000. It shocked me to the core and it taught me to recognise the beauty in repetitious music.  Really, though, I was discovering them because experimental music, as I knew it, had turned into a collector’s game. I was consuming what I could, day after day, and so the internet became my haven.

If Radiohead are where I began, and Godspeed are the middle suite – the band that taught me music as histrionics, politics and twenty minute songs - then Boris are where experimental music turned me dark-side. At first, I found them hard to blast like I had Kid A, or to comprehend like I had Lift Yr Skinny Fists, or even just to enjoy. But they were what fully converted me, what took me away from the Britpop I was so enamoured with to the experimental music I now hoard on my hard-drive (I never had a nu-metal phase, as is my biggest secret shame).

These other bands grabbed me in sweeping moments. Lift Yr Skinny Fists got me slowly, with the violin swells, but it got me right there. Just about every other post-rock band got me by being pretty music, and affecting in that exact way. Occasionally, bands could quell my urge for Keane in one repressive moment: Off Minor did it with “To An Ex,” and Circle Takes the Square got me with their hyper-emotional, total cringe-fest debut album, which taught me to love skramz in ways I snobbishly dismissed before. Eventually, though, I stopped looking for moments and came with a preset: I would, I said to myself, understand everything. From here on out, I simply started listening to everything, thinking if it was good enough for that guy I read on the internet, it was good enough for me.

Boris were the first band I heard making music – making noise – for the sake of it. So I thought. Their songs were called things like “Huge” and “Flood,” and I didn’t argue about their personal politics with people. I got the songs, turned to Wikipedia for more information (drone and sludge? I was in hell) and gave them the alone time they needed. At this point, the guy behind the computer was no longer using music in the right way. I was putting it on in the background, thinking I’d cracked music forever, and idly passing time reading about what I’d download next. So of course I thought Boris was just doing it for kicks – the band’s songs were instrumental, or worse, in a language I didn’t understand, and nastier, more menacing, than, well, you know, post-rock. I’ve been informed recently that “Flood III” is Boris gone doom metal, but at the time I just thought it was a ghastly funeral for a beautiful Explosions In The Sky song.

But Boris tapped into the new terrible connoisseur in me. If I’d sworn off Boris forever after Amplifier Worship, I was still three albums up later that day. If Radiohead gave me a way in and post-rock gave me an intellectual sob-fest, Boris just gave me more. More drone and sludge. More doom metal. More noise rock, what the hell was noise rock? There was just so much to this band, a discography bigger than any I’d ever seen in more styles than I ever knew existed (aside from Robert Pollard’s, but fuck that guy, he broke my heart). I acquired Pink, Akuma No Uta, and the full album version of Flood, and finally I realised the difference between having a way in with music and having a way in with Boris. This was more specific: I couldn’t just assume them in the background.

While I have an overwrought emotional attachment to Boris now, after the live show I’m supposedly writing about right now, and many years of their music floating around my brain, I only recently realised just how good Pink is. That speaks to the miserable nature of my biggest musical memory; these albums took centre stage, at some point, and yet it’s only now – nearing 20 and fulfilling true “hipster” status, whatever that means – the moment captured is becoming real. That’s how music is, I guess, and why I’m so curious of these so-called “musical moments.” When I hear about them, like Adrian’s and George’s, they blow me away, and make me wish I could have them. But mine are always long-winded and ever-on, like my entire musical experience has been one slow-burning jam. I’ve got back to my friends months after to tell them how great the album they’ve recommended me is. Musical moments, it seems, never have the immediacy we’re all left wanting.

Flood, on the other hand, was a sort of instant hit, in that I was astounded by its beauty, even if it didn’t define any particular moment. It continued the lesson started by “Everything In Its Right Place” and “Idioteque,” but made it extreme: fourteen minutes of the same guitar riff circulating in and out of my speakers, with amplifiers crashing around the scene harshly, as if I’d paid for this moment. Then it became “Flood II,” a track I maintain may be the most beautiful ever made, which unfolded at such meditative speeds (or, no speed at all) and with no nuances to excuse it: it made no sense, as music had to, to me, but it astounded me then and there.

It remains my favourite Boris album, and that says it all. Some things never change. Flood is as close as Boris will get to making a Britpop album, or specifically the closest they’ll get to making Starsailor’s fifth album. It’s harsh only when pensive, and always as beautiful as drone music can get. At points, Boris sing on Flood with a hushed murmur James Walsh wouldn’t have minded using on Silence is Easy. No matter how far you travel through the musical spectrum – no matter how much you champion yourself experimental – the annoying shadow of youth will follow you and kick at you until you go back to the sap you started with.

Still, Flood had little bits of immunity. It was rare. So rare I couldn’t find a copy of it on the internet, or find anyone who found it as essential a piece of music as I did. I thought I’d be listening to it on iTunes in rooms out of my boring hometown for the rest of my life and that eventually, obscured by any other way, it’d go out of my life. I’d had my stint with this kind of music and it seemed like it was going to die. Long article short: I was never, ever, going to see Flood performed live.

I think of 15-17 as such an important musical memory because it ended there. I still picked up weird music on demand, got into ambient, made friends who challenged me to find the weirdest thing in their music library, and of course I discovered, and then learned the fine, delicate lines of “outsider art.” But from 18 onwards I was making a retreat into things streamlined for what I knew: indie rock and influences. Animal Collective and Neil Young beckoned. I forgot about Boris, and the twelve or so albums, splits and drone projects with Sunn O))) now sitting on my computer. I occasionally listened to Flood with a new grossly slashed attention span, picking and choosing bits rather than letting it wash over me like the piece of beautiful and occasionally grizzly drone it was.

When I saw Boris perform weeks ago, in the world’s biggest paradox, my biggest musical memory rose up again. I witnessed its finale in an all important real setting, and for the first time, it was laid out in front of me. I’ve never seen Radiohead or Godspeed (curses) but I witnessed the band I was afraid to blast – coercing me. If I wasn’t going to do it, they’d do it themselves: “Huge” rattled around the room louder than anything I’d ever heard, shaking the crowd into one another, making me turn and grin to my friends, out of fear more than anything. “Flood III” finally cut through the noise they were making for the hell of it and went for twenty minutes. Live. I felt like that teenager again, startled by music’s capacity to mesmerize, and amazed it could be so outside of the standard form. It was the greatest gig I’d ever been to, and it was a revelation, restated.

And of course, it was just that I got to see them at all. I never dreamed Boris actually existed, as three actual people, and I never thought I’d see them standing in front of me. I thought they were as absent from the universe as original pressings of Flood were. But there they were, and I wasn’t watching them on the internet or listening to them in the background. I was seeing them play a weird fucking show and finally, I think, I did more than understand them. And now, sick of Britpop and my laptop, I hope that becomes the new answer I give when someone asks me just how much a song has devastated me.

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