The Boxer Rebellion – ‘Promises’ (Absentee Recordings)
Promises… Used in the present tense, this multi-layered noun can suggest hope and flourish; in a reflective sense, it can denote unrealised potential; it’s also a word that, when said twice, suggests you’re full of shit. That The Boxer Rebellion should choose this as the title of their latest album highlights much about their precarious career. Way too original to blend into the contemporary musical climate, while also just as stubborn to change anything about that aspect of themselves, theirs has been a venture always veering towards the present-tense participle of that word – that promises only truly exist where intention lies, wherein hope and flourish abounds.
What has been permanently laudable about this band also seems to count, especially in the eyes of their peers, as their primary flaw – that they never conform. It’s the reason they’ve endured through a staid music industry’s baffling indifference – they remain unsigned and self-releasing their material through their own label; it’s the reason their fans are some of the most ardent and devoted you’ll encounter; it is also the reason their music, contrary to the natural order of things, gets better and better with each album.
With fourth offering Promises, however, rather than simply making the odd adjustment here and there, The Boxer Rebellion have stepped onto a higher plateau. From the moment opener and preceding single Diamonds weaves into existence like a sonic tapestry, you’re virtually conducted into proceedings – guitarist Todd Howe’s staccato fretwork sparking off like pinpricks of light puncturing a foggy, implacable rhythm section. This has always been their forte, but here is possibly the most coherent they’ve ever been. As opening tracks go, it’s absolutely perfect for a band this far into their career – an amalgamation of warm familiarity and wider, different perspectives. This is a statement of intent: ‘It’s us, guys; but not as you knew us.’
Bigger soundscapes; sky-scraping choruses; intricate production; all these elements have produced a piece of work that punches and kicks against the tides and truly encapsulates and defines the moniker The Boxer Rebellion. This is a band who have endured more than most in their staggered career, and the sound that blasts out of them now is justifiably bombastic, and a joyous sound that will resonate on a human scale more than any of their previous work.
“I walk the line of great unknowns/But I never question this” Nathan Nicholson’s plaintive vocals yearn on New York, an eerie ballad that has an intoxicating nostalgia offset by tribalistic drums that pull you out from the track’s underlying sadness. It’s a telling line from a band who have pretty much made a career of walking that very same line. For such an explosive album, there is an latent sadness here that borders on resignation, but also hints at salvation. Typified by the album’s most curious and poignant track Safe House, with its lyric “I have no guarantees in the shade of a Safe House”, this is a song that speaks from the very soul of artistic endeavour. Those who have followed this band and known this band – of which there are many – will feel the weight of these songs, and the effort that probably went into making them. This, after all, is a band who have never dwelled in the safe house. This makes for an even more joyous experience – but is tinged with a note of gravity you can’t help feeling. The most emotionally synchronistic track to this dichotomy is Low, which solves its own melancholy with a chorus that lifts you skyward and rallies against the song’s minor-key beginnings – perhaps the most telling and centrifugal track on the whole album. It’s a salvation song: “You take the longer way to find the end,” lyrics resonant of earlier tracks like World Without End on debut Exits, but grounded in more sturdy and life-affirming melody that transcends its subject matter and screams: “Live for now!” This track is just the thing this band have threatened to do over the course of their career, but now it has arrived – and it is a virtual echo of their entire unshakeable existence as a band.
The first time listening to album gem Keep Moving, this reviewer was, as befits the title, moved. Not only does this song sound like The Boxer Rebellion as I’ve always heard them in my head – the song they were always going to write, some day – but typifies human endurance, which is something this band encapsulates. It has an element of U2 to it, but imagine how amazing that would sound without the idiotic preaching, pretentious moron that fronts it – yeah: there’s Heaven’s gate.
On a further scale, the album’s greatest achievement Always is a testament to perseverance set to a colossal tune that parallels its subject of perpetuity.
On a counterpoint – the shiny flourish of many of these bombastic songs, coupled with the reflective, almost mournful aspect of the lyrics, reveal something of a dichotomy: is this The Boxer Rebellion’s push towards higher ground and new beginnings? Or is this the last hurrah for a band who have suffered, unjustly, more than they can bear?
One can only pray it’s not the latter, for with Promises, The Boxer Rebellion have given us, and themselves, reason to keep on believing, and that promises, when made by the right people, can take you to a better place. This is an album of unrestrained, skybound beauty that feels like a band offloading much of its baggage and ascending further than they’ve dared to go, but simultaneously keeping themselves firmly rooted in the foundations that has held them firm for so long.
The Boxer Rebellion’s Promises are here and now – never to be repeated, and, like their resolve, never to be broken.