Vök – live at The Lexington, London

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Vök

London, The Lexington

“Apparently, our Icelandic gear doesn’t agree with your electricity.”

It’s not really a complaint from the Vök keyboardist, delivered as it is in that languid, minus-two-shits Nordic manner. But the point is pertinent:  there’s a conflict of currents here rarely seen in these parts – a charge of electrical particles that shocks a typically English crowd out of its comfort zone. It’s the Bloody-Nora! Borealis.

Born out of Iceland’s forbidding landscape, Vök’s glacial sound, while unmistakably of its region, forges an identity that’s paradoxically alien. The three figures on stage are certainly of mother-ship material, stationary and rigid as pens shoved up Kraftwerk’s shatwurst, while frontwoman Margret Ran’s voice broadcasts from all compass points, hypnotising in a directionless reverie that retains improbable grounding as it pulls with ferocious gravitational force. A cathedral of sound, the beauty of her voice is so ubiquitous it’s disorienting. Like saccharine strychnine, she sounds like a euthanasian angel of mercy, beautiful to the final breath.

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Circumnavigating this vocal like a centrifuge, the music pulsates with magnetic resistance, a confluence of minimalist old-school analogue through industrial gothic to striated dub-disco that finds light from the darkest sources. In a room so intimate, the effect is womb-like, as if wrapped in fleshy fluidity and amnio. Typified by the sax-led sultry pop-poltergeist of ‘Before’, the almost Brutalist architecture of the music is beyond language, a Tower of Babel that brings its own special electricity from an alien sky, with Ran’s voice weaving a sonic tapestry that makes patterns from half-missed whispers.

Transcendent and intransigent, Vök’s is a tangibly fluid sound channeling Archemides as it moves the Earth while standing absolutely still. It’s a presence that comes from everywhere and nowhere: the Northern Lights on strobe; déjà vu in situ. And once they’re plugged in, there’s just no turning off.

Apparently,  electricity doesn’t agree with them. Tonight, the currents fell in line as Vök settled the argument by giving it watt for.

Aurora? For realis.

Stephen Brolan

*This article is published in Record Collector (UK) and Flood (US) magazines

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Vök / Roch – live@ The Lexington, London

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Vök / Roch

London, The Lexington

While we’re principally here for the debut London headline show of Icelandic trio Vök, it would be remiss not to make mention of the support. After all, what grabs our attention is a rare thing, not least on the capital’s live circuit: silence.

On stage, a diminutive singer calling herself Roch (and pronouncing it “rock”) is flanked by two minimalist males (one a Chris Lowe-esque synth zombie; the other strapped to a bass, possibly dead). The noise they make as we enter almost hides in all corners of the room, dark and conspiratorial. Suddenly, Roch locks her voice mid-song. A bassline fizzes, then fades into fibrous silence. In a Wild West scenario, the piano player has just shut the fuck up, and someone is about to get blown away. And when Roch’s crystalline voice, after a seeming eternity, returns to slice the silence like a blade, the entire Lexington saloon is effectively just that.

It’s a rare gift indeed to instil a note of respectful deference upon the capital’s customarily garrulous gig-goons (although tonight’s Vök crowd are not your average ape-like ilk), and for that Roch deserves rich applause. More than this, hers is a contemplative sound composed of such soul-bearing honesty as to expel exhibition: repose, not pose. And while most of the artsy crowd are engaged in the latter, the space in between their practiced stances is suffused by treacle-thick tendrils of noise that recoil and collide with magnetic resistance, with cleverly overlapping, undulating chord structures almost waltzing in opposite directions.

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Roch: star quality

The sound is so familiar yet alien – incongruous, like midsummer currents lost in midwinter. Roch herself is slight and statuesque, with a voice straight from a cloud’s catacombs – weightlessly deep; a million miles away yet somehow in your face. Around the room, dark musical shapes are on the move; Roch’s sonorous vocals sweep them ever on. Truncated beats tiptoe conspiratorially around rhythmic incantations like priests in purple cassocks, and the whole room transmogrifies into a gothic version of Alice In Wonderland directed by David Lynch. So weird; so, so close.

“This next song is ‘Closer’,” she announces, invoking more claustrophobia as the walls get smaller and oxygen darts out the fire exit. We draw a final lungful as ‘Closer’ draws things to a close, its seductive pop showcasing Roch’s Mazzy Star-like bone-china voice, which cracks for the last time like a brittle plate at the Mad Hatter’s party. The crowd remains respectfully silent, still and contrived as statues, but now almost amorphous – a collective closer to humanity than their shapes suggested at the beginning.

And even when we later discover art student Roch is potentially one of them, her craft eschews esoteric posturing in favour of incandescent, insouciant honesty. This is Roch: star (in the sculpting).

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Vok: ahh quality

After which, the organic craft of Vök shows what Nature herself can sculpt with the tools of geographic circumstance. Born out of Iceland’s forbidding landscape, this triumvirate’s glacial sound is one that demonstrates how geometry too can be a compositional element. And while it’s true the sound emanating from their homeland has a tendency to evoke Sigur Rós, Björk et al – just as, on the opposite side of the globe, Australian bands rock in perpetuity on an adolescent highway to AC/DC – the generic strain in the northern hemisphere is one that consistently evolves. The polite term for this contiguity would be ‘homogenous’ (in Oz: ‘homunculus’ ); the similarity, however, is redeemed by one simple fact: they do it so… fucking… well.

In the case of Vök, theirs is an evolution of sound that, while unmistakably of its region, forges an identity that’s paradoxically unidentifiable – alien. The three figures facing us from the stage are convincingly mother-ship material, stationary and rigid as pens shoved up Kraftwerk’s arse, while leader and frontwoman Margret Ran has a voice broadcasting from everywhere and nowhere – a series of points in time that converge at the slightest tilt of her elfin head.

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Surrounded by a mixture of beats and melodies that run the gamut from minimalist old-school analogue through industrial gothic to striated Blue Weaver-style disco, the chaos is anchored by Ran’s nursery-horror vocals that seduce and scathe with alternating abandon like a hibernating banshee. And while she remains fixedly positioned centre stage – flanked by synth-bound goalpost men – her distracted, almost desultory vocals writhe like fidget like knotted serpents brimming with poison. During soporific seducer ‘Waterfall’, the venom is like a whispered osmosis drip-drip-dripping into the heart of a cavernous, black-hole melody that implodes and impregnates itself. It’s as if original sin has found a soundtrack.

But despite the reference points – smatterings of Jan Hammer, Portishead, Kraftwerk, The KLF; Prussian hauteur meets Icelandic auteur – we’re still floating somewhere in the middle of nowhere, neither hot nor cold, neither human nor alien. This is music to simply exist to, with no definitions – no country or boundaries.

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“Apparently, our Icelandic gear doesn’t agree with your electricity,” one of the goalposts says, trying to hook up his synth and unearthing some cantankerous English voltage. The metaphor is as irresistible as the currents apparently are: theirs is a life force that can’t be translated; regions are so alien to their output that special adapters are required. And while their sound is fiercely and studiously confining, it staunchly refuses to be confined.

As the saxophone comes out on the sultry pop-poltergeist of ‘Before’, the musical shift is like a tapestry, its pattern familiar but alien, like déjà vu in reverse, with Ran’s voice running back and forth, weaving in and out, and sculpting itself around the living melody with ergonomic precision. With the sound of water overlain with soporific effects and throbbing, robotic bass, eventually evolving into metronomic beats and saxo-cacophony, it’s like a scene from Bladerunner the porno (dir. Fiddly Scott) wherein replicants upstage humanity with precision love-making. Passion never sounded so mathematical.

By the time the throbbing trance-like genesis of single ‘Circles’ brings us aptly full circle, it’s difficult to know whether this has been a cerebral or a sensual experience. The feeling is like love as an equation: precise as Cupid’s arrow unleashing chaos in the heart. The music is so replete with angles, its architecture a mixture of Brutalist and Romantic, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where and how it comes to meet you. All you know is: it just does. Vök’s music is a force that arrives without invitation, yet is somehow uninvasive; the sound, like the entity that makes it – on the surface of it yet another Icelandic triptych with synths and a frontwoman with airy, Björk-like vocals and dodgy, Björk-like hair stub – is just welcome without rhyme or reason – the expected unexpected. That this collective comes under the moniker of Vök is the only definition on offer.

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In fact, with regards the band’s name (pronounced ‘verk’), rumours abound that it’s a phonetic encryption, a composite word fusing various European linguistic pronunciations to make a rude word (basically ‘fuck’ in three languages). Whether it’s true or not is moot – it’s very apt: this is a sound that ventures out beyond all confines and structures to become something that defies geographical provenance. And a surreptitious, multilingual profanity is fine with us – it’s as good a definition as any: a Fuck-you Tower of Babel set to confound national grids and electrical currents all across Europe and the known world, with everything and nothing lost in translation.

By the end, we’re lost for words. The only thing that springs to mind has, like the music that prompted its utterance, seemingly come from nowhere: Vök me!

Stephen Brolan

* An edited version of the Vök review is published in Record Collector in the UK and Flood magazine in the US

FRANCO & THE DREADNOUGHT – album review

Franco2FRANCO AND THE DREADNOUGHT

Franco And The Dreadnought

(Glasstone Records)

Even before a note has been played, this reviewer is irked by something we’ve spotted in the acknowledgements. While thanks are variously handed out to worthy individuals, a cap is also doffed to “the people I know that will play this album repeatedly”.

The words “I know” scorch themselves with branding-iron arrogance onto my brain. And as I begin to sharpen my hatchet while I throw the CD into the stereo – an open window was tempting – I realise that, in my case, our Franco (“aka John Blaylock”, also in the sleeve notes – again, irksome) has me bound to his assertion: repeated listens are a reviewer’s shackles.

In this case, however, it’s a good job I’m duty bound. Upon first listen, apart from being bookended by standout tracks, the defiantly optimistic Moving Mountains and album-closer-by-numbers ballad The Catch Of The Pride, most tracks seemed to blend into one another. On the second lap, however, Last Man Standing stands up as the album’s pop-singalong anchor, while Monsters +Ghosts attaches a catchy rhythm and melody to the notion of fear, a song much more aligned to the likes of singer-songwriters such as Fionn Regan.

The ‘Oh dear God’ factor, which repeats like a bad curry, belongs to penultimate track Friends, which sees Franco the Manco donning his inner-city Mike Skinner chops with something approximating a rap, the words “We barely see each other now we’ve all got girls” a lament of the loss of friendship that reflects Eminem’s How Come? in that the titular words of the blonde one’s track instantly spring to mind.

On reflection, Franco’s is a debut that, while not earning too many repeats on this reviewer’s stereo, is a piece of work that really does reward that extra effort.

Stephen Brolan

*An edited version of this review is published in the August edition of BrumNotes magazine. http://www.brumnotes.com

THE BOXER REBELLION – Official Biography, with video of The making of The Cold Still

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THE BOXER REBELLION

BIOGRAPHY

Written by Stephen Brolan

It’s the summer of 2010. London’s Leicester Square is awash with a gaggle of fame vampires, all squeezed behind barriers like battery-farmed salivaters as another load of famous people bring their movie premiere to town.

In the midst of all this, four friends stand motionless upon the red carpet in an almost protective huddle, sporting ‘what-the-fuck?’ expressions as paparazzi bulbs spark off around them. As they are ushered down the rouge concourse, a forest of fanatical arms wave and flap in their direction. Presently, Edith Bowman bids them forth and asks the throng to show their appreciation for this bewildered quartet: “Give it up for… The Boxer Rebellion!”

An enthusiastic cheer rings out, albeit from a crowd that would celebrate the coming of the apocalypse if it were endorsed by someone famous enough.

The fact is, this band, and the people it is composed of, are not famous. Even though they’ve been around for nearly 10 years, the spotlight they are now basking in is one that has consistently eluded them. Less than a year ago, two of the group would have been working in a shoe shop literally around the corner from where they now stand. That they are here at all lies in the fact they’re the musical focal point of Hollywood rom-com Going the Distance, in which they share the limelight with Drew Barrymore and Justin Long, the latter’s A&R character a promoter and eventual manager of the band (who play themselves) giving even more surreal overtones to what, in reality, is a collective for whom big breaks more likely implied fractured ligaments.

In short, this is a band for whom privileges have been somewhat scarce. And for all that, being given the exposure with which they now so suddenly find themselves, it’s small wonder they’re looking like rabbits in the headlights about to be run over by a commercial bandwaggon.

“Come ’ere,” Bowman says, the chaps acquiescing, huddle style. “So, lads!” she bawls into the PA, the crowd sort-of listening. “How did you come to be here?”

For a moment there’s a silence, in which an innocuous question becomes an accusation, almost as if this band of men – whose career has thus far been a torrid endeavour – are here because of some fortuitous media coup. And although that’s as far from the truth as you could get, especially for a band who’ve forged their own career with stubborn diligence, there’s a certain pertinence about this, which an exchange of glances between the four-piece makes for a voluminous subtext…

‘Hey,’ it says: ‘how the fuck did we get here?’

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First love

It takes a lot to atone for being stood up…

My first encounter with The Boxer Rebellion – or lack thereof – came at the tail end of 2003. The EP was a complete surprise; barely a year into music journalism, and already my heard-it-all-before muscle was getting too sinewy to chew on, as seemingly endless wishy-washy promos of the Next Big Thing were shat through the letterbox. An overriding sense of the musical climate at the time evokes either confused fin de siécle experimental technophiles, faint plinkety rumblings of the retro 80s-style bands that would later define the decade, or, predominantly, bands that wanted to be The Libertines. A firm belief remains, however, that whatever context The Boxer Rebellion EP may have arrived in, that same jarring sense of the unexpected would have come with it (just listen to the EP now – or indeed any of their subsequent output: it remains laudably uncomfortable in its surroundings).

The EP in the stereo, a searing, scraping screech of guitars becomes the first thing to hit the ears. As first impressions go, it’s like shaking hands with a cheese-grater. Watermelon was the track, and to this day it lingers with enduring first-love embers, not just because of its insistent juggernaut of a melody and rolling rhythms, but because, at the time, this was like a rescue for a set of indie-schmidie-infected ears that were beginning to take root. By the time In The Empire’s epic, nightmarescape finale brings things to a close – with a dystopian fade-out that dreams to a close like Satan’s ice-cream van enticing children of the post-apocalypse (no really) – a love affair with The Boxer Rebellion was well and truly on.

I simply had to see this band. Now

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The first show scheduled in London was to be at Camden’s royal palace of dinginess, the Barfly, the prospect of which seemed enticingly contradictory: how could a band of such massive sonic scope fit within the confines of that shack without actually destroying something? Or someone?

Standing in approximate safety near the exit, pen and pad poised to document the carnage, Xfm’s geek-in-residence John Kennedy takes to the stage and regrets to announce The Boxer Rebellion have cancelled. He doesn’t sound regretful enough for my liking. After all, they were only support for tonight’s main attraction – some bunch of upstarts calling themselves The Killers. For the briefest of moments, my sense of gutted almost overwhelms to the point of edging me out the door. Instead, I take the consolation of these so-called Killers, who throw out some decent Bunnymen-tinged goth-lite pop punches. They’ll probably be massive, I scribble absently in my review notes. A few months later my accuracy doesn’t really surprise; to a certain extent, their somewhat unchallenging way with immediate and instantly recognisable tunes marked them out as… well, just obvious. For my part, I couldn’t help wondering what would have been had The Boxer Rebellion actually been present that night. What kind of context would that have placed The Killers in? Would the ensuing hyperbole surrounding the Las Vegans have been so keenly focused with a full-on sonic Rebellion pounding next to them.

Hindsight always invokes the notion of luck, so I’ll try to avoid that here. The only thing I had to go on that night was an EP that sounded like the heavens opening – the creators of which had stood me up – and a professional and somewhat overpolished performance from another band who would very soon (quite obviously) be selling millions.

My first non-encounter with The Boxer Rebellion that night proved crucial to my understanding of timing in the music business when, a few months later at the same venue, an incendiary performance by a stupendously present Boxer Rebellion showed me just how lucky The Killers were to not have this mighty band in support.

And it was possibly the one and only time I forgave anyone for standing me up…

Hiatus

It was only later I would learn the true purpose behind the band’s no-show, and possibly an insight into The Boxer Rebellion’s on-off relationship with their own fortunes. The fact is, at the time, momentum was gathering as the band’s live shows started to get heads turning and the EP demonstrated they could write a tune. “We were shit for a while,” Howe admits. “And it wasn’t until we wrote Watermelon we thought: ‘Hey, we’ve got something here; this is good!’ We wrote In The Empire the same day – that was really the turning point.”

The support show with The Killers – themselves on the crest of a wave ­– was just one in a series of mutual-support shows with others who were on the up, including The Raveonettes and Razorlight. However, a troublesome appendix inside singer Nicholson had a few things to say on the matter – its bursting necessitating a life-saving operation and a lengthy recovery as Nicholson returned to his hometown in the States. So, while these other bands’ careers took off from thereon, and just as their own career seemed to be dovetailing with their peers, The Boxer Rebellion found themselves on indefinite hiatus.

Again, as with the Killers gig, only speculation lingers as to what might have been – what could have happened had things been different. Through the best part of a decade together, The Boxer Rebellion’s career has spawned a plethora of couldabeens: avenues of possibility down which they would generally end up mugged. As an existence, The Boxer Rebellion’s career is a virtual testament to hindsight, and certainly raises more questions than provides answers. However, for a group drawn from all corners of the globe – Tennessee-born singer Nathan Nicholson; Aussie guitarist Todd Howe (“We were only meant to be in the UK for a short time,” Howe recalls); and English rhythm section Adam Harrison (bass) and Piers Hewitt (drums) – ­route one was never on the cards. With their combined idiosyncrasies, curious chemistries and divergences, The Boxer Rebellion equates to more of a square root.

However, as with any nonlinear equation, a few wrong conclusions are bound to be reached. Before TBR even became the vehicle they are today, a dalliance with the obvious – with Route One – would come first…

Hello Glastonbury!

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Well, perhaps Route One is a slight anomaly. After all, you couldn’t really define Route One as being invited to play Glastonbury before a label has been anywhere near you (legend will decree their eventual suitor spotted the band at the festival and crawled over cow’s shit to sign them, but that, in fact, is cow’s shit). Having cut their teeth touting London’s live circuit, and fostered something of a distinctive sound through dogged rehearsals and, as Howe would put it, ‘less crappy songwriting’, their manager of the time persuaded a slightly reluctant and confidence-lacking Boxer Rebellion to enter that year’s PlayLouder competition. This was early 2003, barely a year after the band had changed its name (from a cringe-inducing moniker we shan’t repeat) and formed the finished line-up that exists today.

One reluctant competition entry later, whatever confidence might have been lacking was delivered a big dollop of flattery, the band actually being fast-tracked into the final five – PlayLouder’s organiser, reeling from the barrage of woeful entries he’d thus far received, facilitated this under the conviction the Boxers were in a league of their own. In truth, the league also contained certain other players who went by the name of Keane, who, following a public vote, came second to the Rebellion. “I guess they had the last laugh,” Nicholson reasonably concludes, the runners-up later going on to occupy the main stage and even performing to the entire planet at Live 8.

However, this small victory led to the Glasto slot and subsequently –indirectly, as it happens – to the emergence of a certain industry player with some serious indie credentials.

“Alan McGee came up to us about two weeks after playing Glastonbury,” Howe recalls emphatically. “There’s this whole myth that he met us at Glastonbury – he was never even there! But basically, he came to us after a gig and said he wanted to put out our record. And there’s us all beady-eyed and naïve going ‘OK!’”

The facilitator of groups such as Oasis and Primal Scream, though not bands of immediate or even second-hand influence to The Boxer Rebellion, the endorsement of McGee and his Poptones imprint at the time seemed like a welcome reprieve from the bigwig majors, who would make their advances not remotely A&Rsed about doing anything except spouting empty platitudes and rhetoric.

“A lot of major labels came to see us after the EP was released,” Nicholson recalls. “One guy from [insert generic major of choice here] came down to rehearsals and we were really excited, but he was basically just telling us major labels don’t sign anything that’s extremely fresh.”

And so, with the cigar chompers continuing to ply their trade in predictable, processed-cheese produce, an organically sourced Boxer Rebellion took their too-original-for-comfort sound and set about making their first statement with a debut album. Surely now, fortified by a coveted McGee endorsement, things could really start to gain momentum…

Exits

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“Rest your eyes, this goes on for miles…”

The opening lines from the spectral operatics of World Without End, one of the highlights of debut long-player Exits, contain a haunting resonance that plummets the listener into a dimensionless reverie, as if consumed by a blind, directionless longing, in a landscape of perpetual horizons. It is also, in hindsight, such an appropriate sentiment, such were the endless hurdles and impediments that manifested during the making of their primary work.

“We finished Exits in July 2004; it didn’t come out until May 2005,” Howe recalls, the sheer perplexity forging a deeply ingrained furrow under his electric shock of a hairdo. In fact, every mention of their time with Poptones seems to engender a certain disbelief that causes his frown-laced follicles to represent a virtual haystack of concern, baring down. He turns to Alan McGee’s involvement – or lack thereof. “He just went AWOL during the time we were recording,” he says, clearly perplexed. “He only came down on the second to last day of mixing, and had a bunch of concerns about how we were sounding… He basically wanted us to sound like The Libertines.” Howe then reveals how the frustration of this ignorance gave birth songs such as Flight and Cowboys and Engines: “We wouldn’t have written those songs without that intervention, and the record became much more different – which was good, in a way…”

“If we’d have put the album out as it was when we signed the album deal, it would have been an entirely different record,” Nicholson reflects, whose own ill health also impeded the album’s completion. “I don’t know whether my sickness channelled my frustration, but it gave me a lot of time to think about my writing.”

In this instance, time was the ultimate sculptor, infusing The Boxer Rebellion’s sound with a scope that was scintillatingly epic without delving into stadium-sized bombast. As a body of work, Exits turned out to be one of those rare albums that grew with each listen – a shining beacon in a musical climate that had become increasingly disposable.

“People like the fashionable bands that are one-trick ponies because they’re very immediate,” Hewitt said at the time of Exits’ initial release. “When they come across bands like us who go off in different directions, they’re not sure what to do with it.”

“Here’s the deal,” Harrison states in his customary preamble. “You can sound like something and be instantly recognised and have an instant career trajectory. But it’s probably short-lived, because whatever is in vogue at that point in time is gonna be over when the next new thing comes along. The flipside of that is you’re not able to be pigeonholed, so you’re not recognised to be fashionable.”

Heard but not ‘scene’, perhaps, the Rebellion’s obstinacy and self-assuredness, while providing the architecture that allowed the finished album to sound as it did, also loosened the bolts of the precarious relationship between themselves and their label. At this point, things were looking inevitable. Barely a week after the album was released, with nary a single piece of advertising to promote the album, Poptones finally cut the cord (McGee not even bothering to tell them face to face), giving the album’s title more pertinence than they might ever have expected.

However, behind every Exits, an entrance lay beyond…

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Exit strategy

Fortress Studios, London 2007.

Two years have passed since the band’s unceremonious jettison from Poptones. A fiercely ambitious and mesmeric debut album that should have been stratospheric (or at least cruising nicely at 35,000 feet) brought the Rebellion’s cause crashing down to earth, a strip of road stretching out before them into the unknown darkness. This was certainly the end of Route One.

“Being on a label was pretty damn frustrating,” Howe recalls unequivocally. “There were people we were working with who would not want us to sound like us – just another version of something that was already out there.” He sighs, heavily. “And you just think: Why the fuck did you sign us in the first place?”

“Originally, when things imploded, we were quite happy about it cos we didn’t like how things were being done,” Nicholson continues, his thick Tennessee accent, even after a decade, stubbornly defying Anglo-dilution. “It was kinda nice to get back to a point where we could do what we want and make our own decisions about where to head. But…” he hesitates. “It was good at first, but after a while you start thinking ‘Oh shit!’ – we didn’t have a label or even an agent anymore, so we basically all went back to nothing.”

And so, with a relatively clean slate, albeit besmirched with the ashes of failure, the Rebellion took themselves back to their recording ‘home’ – a place whose name, at this juncture, had taken on a more pertinent meaning: Fortress.

Tucked away in the back streets off London’s Old Street, this renowned but utterly ramshackle recording studio has been The Boxer Rebellion’s rehearsal space since the beginning. Following the fiasco and legal wranglings surrounding the first album – it would be over a year before the majority of the royalties came through from a now defunct Poptones – the band returned to their spiritual home, complete with a number of songs already written for the planned follow-up album (which now had fuck-all in the way of financing) and a feeling of uncertainty about what was going to happen next. After much soul searching, the four-piece decided the Rebellion wasn’t up just yet. After all, the songs were still there, even if the backing wasn’t.

“I think being dropped was the making of our attitude,” Harrison says of the Rebellion’s somewhat insular dynamic. “We always did do our own thing, but after we got dropped, it just went full circle back to doing things for ourselves.”

Without a contract, and hamster-feed royalties dribbling in, the band returned to day jobs to finance – session by session – rehearsal, writing and recording behind the protective walls of Fortress, determinedly building on the songs that had already begun to surface during the laborious Exits days. Having borne the weight of that frustration, being in the studio, together, seemed the only course of action, if only for the sake of solidarity, or even sanity. Typical of TBR’s contrary means of doing things – of sourcing their own particular solution to the immediate questions – locking themselves away in a recording ‘cell’ straight out of Silence of the Lambs was their particular means of regaining a semblance of normality.

“People would come and make big gestures,” Howe recalls of the plethora of industry bullshitters who would serenade them with lots of, well, industry bullshit during their formative years. “And it was all just talk – they’d just vanish into thin air. And we made a decision not to align ourselves with anyone who did that – not any more.” Pensively, he flicks ash from his cigarette almost with disdain, as if something other were being cast aside. “It’s all a learning curve – a hard one, but ultimately it makes you stronger.” The cigarette itself goes for six, and he continues: “In hindsight, it’s all better that we went through that… but that’s just hindsight. Yeah, we gained the experience we’ve got now, but at the time, it went from being dropped to feeling: what the hell are we meant to do now? There were a couple of months of shit, then we wrote Forces and Misplaced, and that’s when it started to feel right again…”

With the new album beginning to take shape, and their songwriting gear in cruise control, it was only a matter of time before something special happened. And then it did…

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Go!

The call came from Todd, which wasn’t much of a surprise – we had become friends since I interviewed the band for my first feature on them at The Fly. What was a surprise was the answerphone message – an excitable Boxer Rebellion singing octaves of my name down the phone, Beach Boys style (though, it sounded more like Gargling-Bleach Boys), with instructions to come down to Fortress right away. An audience was sought. I should get down there. Now, like.

In this bric-a-brac rehearsal space – paraphernalia and musical equipment seemingly in perpetual conflict, facing every which way – it’s perhaps the only object with a line of latitude: the SOFA. A character in itself, this innocuous-looking piece of furniture likes to sit parallel to the band formation – a docile, obsequious, scuffed teddy bear of a couch, which, in rehearsal world, seems to act as the imaginary front row of the next big gig. On it I’m plonked, barely able to utter a word. The band are about to play me something they’ve just written, and even before they’ve struck a single note, I’m already noticing something’s awry. Nate’s strapped up in an acoustic, while left and right, Todd and Adam each has a kettle drum in front of him…

BOOM! BANG-A-BOOM!!

Drums, pounding, thunder-like from Mount Olympus, as if Zeus is on his way. The sofa and I are actually under attack. Presently, Nate’s voice breaks through the storm like a new commandment – angelic, ominous, portentous. In this underground lair, such a colossal sonic assault is like being trapped in a particle accelerator. By the end of the first verse, the claustrophobic walls have moved even closer. Something’s got to give… before the bloody ceiling does. Stepping back from the kettle drum, Howe brandishes his guitar. Presently, a metallic superconductor of a riff teleports the viscerally tribal verse into a transcendental chorus that evaporates the walls around us. “Tell me, why you’re leaving”, Nate’s ethereal vocals implore. I grab the sofa; the sofa hangs on to me: we’re going nowhere.

By the end of my first listen – anyone’s listen – of Flashing Red Light Means Go, it was clear not only that The Boxer Rebellion had moved up several notches in sound and scope, but also that no basement could hold them now.

The first thing I remember, as the last note of the outro rang out on the kettle drums, is leaping from the sofa and whooping like a banshee (the sofa stayed put, being cooler than me). At the time, the band must have thought I was on something, but it was all I could do to keep from exploding – the sheer delight of hearing that song for the first time – and what I believe it meant not just for the band but for music in general – way too exciting to simply sit back and chin-scratch.

Following this up (as if that weren’t enough) with Evacuate (a song I’d heard before but which had become even more honed), and an instantly addictive new track for which they hadn’t got a title (a song yours truly actually named – Spitting Fire – despite claims/lies Todd may have to the contrary), it was clear something was happening here – something big.

After this privileged mini-gig, my first thought was to phone my editor at the time, in a hold-the-front-page type gesture. Music was about to change direction, damn it, and I had just seen the drivers. In my excitement, however, I forgot to factor in that my editor was a clueless prick.

In hindsight, perhaps everybody was suffering from idiot editor syndrome, since it would be another TWO YEARS following that impromptu session that the album Union would even see the light of day…

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Grand Union

“We actually finished the album in 2007,” Nicholson recalls. “Once we’d finished it, it was harder, because it wasn’t like we didn’t have material anymore – we had a whole finished album, but nothing was happening.”

Having pretty much self-financed most of the rehearsals and songwriting time for the second album – Hewitt teaching drums and hosting his own local radio show; Howe taking on freelance work in web design; Nicholson and Harrison working the same shoe shop in Covent Garden (Nicholson: “It was embarrassing when people recognised you, and you had to fit them out with a pair of Reeboks”) – financing for the recording of the album (at Fortress, with Tom Morris engineering and the band self-producing) came from an agent in Japan – effectively an ardent fan of the band who wanted to help them out. However, upon completion, it soon became clear the album was still going nowhere. Something was missing.

“Nori [backer and Japan agent] was great for getting the album made,” Howe emphasises, “but he just wasn’t a manager. As a result, the album was done and was just being sat on, doing nothing. It was harsh, but we knew we had to get another manager.”

Enter Embargo Management, and current manager Sumit Bothra. That very same week, the band met with a representative of iTunes – something that looks like an instant master stroke on the manager’s part, but was merely testament to the fact he had his eyes and ears open: iTunes had in fact been trying to reach The Boxer Rebellion for six months.

“It was a really quick turnaround once we’d sorted out the management situation,” Howe reveals. “We were sent in to rerecord Forces and These Walls Are Thin, mixed it, mastered it, and uploaded it to iTunes the next day. And that was it – everything came good after that.”

With the backing of iTunes, everything came better than good: records – not merely the musical kind – were about to be made. Second album Union saw The Boxer Rebellion make history by becoming the first ever unsigned artist to enter the billboard top 100 in the US (on digital sales alone), while iTunes made the album’s lead track Evacuate worldwide single of the week – another unprecedented move. While Exits showed The Boxer Rebellion how to head for the door, Union proved to be the necessary gelling agent to bring everything back together. You could say this is a band with a formidable knack of coming up with apposite titles. Whether it’s self-fulfilling or not is unclear, but surely the albums Kings of The Known Universe or I Can See The Top Of God’s Head (possibly already U2 projects) should be on the cards? However, you don’t develop into a band such as The Boxer Rebellion with such grandiose gestures. Much like the music they produce, there has always been a certain pragmatism that recognises you cannot force issues – or indeed songs – but rather acknowledge the imperative of process.

“We’ve always been a band that’s had a sense of seclusion, which has helped us extract the essence of what we are as a unit,” Howe reveals. “We’ve basically had to lean on each other to keep going with it.”

It’s this sense of allegiance – this egalitarian means of conducting both themselves and their art – that has allowed The Boxer Rebellion to navigate a career beset with industry indifference and financial hardship to forge a niche that has set unprecedented industry landmarks from the base materials of talent and strength of will.

“Our evolution stemmed from the success of Union, which was a real turning point for us,” Howe continues. “Before that, it was basically if Union didn’t do the job, that might be it: we might not make – or be able to make – a third record.”

Harrison elaborates: “It reached a point where I thought if we had no chance of any success in the future, and if there was no reason financially to make music, would I still want to play with these guys?” He pauses, as if contemplating all over again. “The answer was emphatically ‘yes’ – there was never any question of breaking up since the music was still great.”

Vindicated by their series of minor victories beyond the conventional – something for which they’ve always held a healthy disdain – but also by now fully conversant with the vagaries of their chosen profession (Nicholson: “We’re like the bastard child who’s been burnt by his father too many times – we have trust issues”), The Boxer Rebellion took Union to the road, playing a series of sold-out shows across the world – with particular success in the US. And it was here, in a chance encounter in a Los Angeles club, things were about to get even more surreal…

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Going the Distance

If ever there were a band that equally – paradoxically – typified both the futility and endless possibility of navigating the music industry, The Boxer Rebellion are poster children. Having endured the frustrations and restrictions of Route One via a non-committal record label, the Rebellion have – to this day – remained on independent terms with their own destiny, trusting in themselves, their friendship, and their own ability to shape whatever course they deem suitable. In the truest etymological sense, The Boxer Rebellion are the epitome of ‘indie’ – a collective that has, despite whatever personal differences that have emerged over the years, remained committed to each other and the ultimate goal, above and beyond any notions of fame and wealth.

Perhaps this is what attracted Hollywood into casting The Boxer Rebellion in indie rom-com Going The Distance, a film whose premise pontificates on the nature of love’s endurance in the face of scepticism and so-called experience.

After a chance encounter at the Troubadour gig in LA, industry spotters prompted director Nanette Burstein into casting the band as the musical focal point for the movie (and Justin Long’s character), and within a year – possibly the most surreal annual headfuck of their lives – The Boxer Rebellion found themselves up on the silver screen and, still without a label, walking on red carpets among the great and the good and essentially wondering what the fuck was going on.

With two tracks from Union featured on the soundtrack – Evacuate and Spitting Fire – and a new song written especially for the film – the uncharacteristic but extremely popular If You Run – the coverage alone was enough to make them confident a third album, despite the odds, would be a possibility. Not only that, with the backing they now had, TBR were finally receiving some recognition, the success of Union now a monolith for self-belief and doing things on your own terms.

“We changed as people by finally getting some vindication on the second record and making a decision where we could remain independent, because we still weren’t ready to deal with labels,” Howe states.

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The Cold Still

Thus independent, and coming off the relative success of the film (indie in extremis: not a great showing at the box office, but endeared by the nerdy cognoscenti), the Rebellion took their wares and, typically, focused everything into producing the next record. Having traversed the ignominy of (fake) indie-label acquiescence to become a bastion of autonomous self-reliance, the time had come for another dimension – a missing link that might just propel things to a higher plain.

Enter Ethan Johns… and the beginning of third album The Cold Still

“Meeting up with Ethan, and him saying he wanted to do it [record the album] gave us a kick up the arse and made us knuckle down,” Howe explains. “Once we knew we were working with Ethan, it really changed the direction of our songwriting – we knew, being in that studio, we had a deadline. And that really got us going.”

“Working on this album, I felt there had to be some natural way of recording, because the tracks were coming fast,” the producer states. “So recording it live seemed like the logical thing to do – there was a synchronicity to writing and recording, and the way it all came together so naturally I think adds to the whole feel of it.”

The result of this dynamic – and the first album The Boxer Rebellion handed over to a single producer – unearths a piece of work that might never have seen the light of day from a band of lesser conviction, but one that casts The Boxer Rebellion in the mould of greatness certain forces have until now conspired to deny them. And beyond all that’s sought to restrain them, this is a band who, through collective determination, have taken the trials of their formative years and built themselves a present and a future that takes from the past only what is to be discarded.

“No band in the world would like to have gone through what we’ve been through,” Hewitt sums up. “But almost every band would like to feel what we feel now… There’s a certain justice to getting where you want to be in spite of all else…”

Standing on a red carpet in the middle of Leicester Square, The Boxer Rebellion, far too humble to look justified, nevertheless cast their eyes over the scene before them – pensive as ever any collective to hit the limelight. How the fuck did they get here? Determination is an answer; accident probably more precise. In the grand scheme of things, The Boxer Rebellion are – and continue to be – in love with the process of being. Through Exits, Union, and The Cold Still, they have produced a body of work that, beyond the realms of celebrity, seeks nothing beyond itself.

In a disposable world such as this, can we afford anything less?

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Promise is Promises

“I walk the line of great unknowns, but I never question this…”

It was never going to be an easy task – nor was it likely to be understated. To follow up a body of work that had garnered its share of plaudits but had yet to reap the commercial success that it clearly deserved, the Rebellion’s fourth album had probably more riding on it than the others – albeit self-imposed. Staunchly remaining unsigned to any record label, and self-releasing on their own Absentee Recordings imprint, the band set about making the album their ambitions and scope always threatened to produce. With Promises, the songs soared to higher plateaus and sights than they’d previously dreamed.

As a piece of work, it still stands as one of the more daring and adventurous albums of the last ten years, and tracks such as the relentless singles Keep Moving and Diamonds possess all the hallmarks of genuine classics.

As always, time will tell.

Having walked the line of great unknowns, the final word on The Boxer Rebellion has to be that of self-belief, autonomy and sheer determination to create art on its own terms, without compromise. With these four recordings, they’ve done exactly that. And prouder they can be of that feat, because these records were borne out of that sense of togetherness and keeping faith in a single, unwavering vision; there was never a

question they would have done it any other way.

So much promise lies in self-belief. The Boxer Rebellion are possibly the most stark example of that conviction. Promises swears, hand on heart, nothing less than the devotion that has carried them this far. This is a band that is as good as its word. And you just have to cherish that. Always…

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Stephen Brolan, 

January 2014

*This biography was originally written for the ‘Live At Shepherd’s Bush’ DVD. To order ‘Live At The Forum 2014’ , go to this link: http://www.theboxerrebellion.com/2014/09/pre-order-live-at-the-forum-from-theboxerrebellion-com/

** A review of Promises can be read here: https://stephenbrolan.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/the-boxer-rebellion-promises-album-review/

EMBRACE – ‘Refugees’ EP review

Embrace – Refugees EP (Cooking Vinyl)

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If you’re going to return after a long stint away – as might be the case with a reconciled relationship – yours is an obligation to demonstrate change, while also retaining the essence of what made love happen in the first place.

And so back into our lives stride Embrace, proffering a four-track bouquet of songs that seeks to atone for their seven-year absence. So what’s new, stranger?

Well, initially it’s Danny McNamara’s falsetto impersonation of bollock-free imp Jimmy Somerville, as Refugees initiates our reconciliation with a prodigal-son version of Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy – almost note for eunuch-toned note.

However, the difference here is that Danny has rarely sounded so confident in his own vocals – always a bone of contention with his detractors – as he produces a velvety pitch that hovers liltingly over an incessant melody rumbling beneath, creating an ethereal preamble to a chorus that smacks you right in the face.

Richard McNamara has always played second fiddle to his brother, but here he takes centre stage with a skybound vocal performance that evolves the idea of a chorus into another dimension. Always the absolute masters of vertiginous, mountain-range refrains, here Embrace notch it up to Heaven’s eleven – the sound of a phoenix from the flames, still on fire. If you’re going to return from hibernation, shredding the very fabric of the sky and having it rain like volcanic larva from on high is a pretty effective way of saying ‘Remember me?’

Following that, Chameleon is a darkened vision of love with a schizophrenic bent, overlain with an insistent, wide-awake, tangled-in-the-sheets melody that won’t let you rest, and is possibly one of the best songs Embrace have ever made – the most incredible aspect of it being that it didn’t even make it onto the album.

In fact, every track here could have made it – Decades is a roller-coaster of a melody that lurches and falls with a dizzying grandiosity that somehow manages not to induce nausea – a stadium-bound track that sits humbly in the confines of this neat little EP.

As was always the case with Embrace, their EPs almost felt like albums in themselves. This is the first one since the powers that be overseeing chart regulations stipulated four-track EPs were not to be eligible for chart entry (fellow EP specialists Mansun also felt the sting of this jelly-brained ruling). This defiant return to those gallows reads like a great big fuck-you to the chart regulators – precisely the action that should be made. The EP needs to come back, and this four-track journey is a potent and provocative piece of evidence that could support such a case.

Closing with aptly named Bullets, which hits you point-blank with its open-hearted, tender brutality – containing one of Danny McNamara’s most haunting vocal performances, and the virulent lyrics “If you cut me open, bullets fill my heart – your name’s on every one” – Embrace not only manage to atone for their prolonged absence, they also look and sound more beautiful than we remembered. Absence has indeed made the heart grow fonder… erm, and more lethal.

Seven years may have been too long a wait, but if you’re going to make amends, this is the ultimate charmer. But this is no bouquet of flowers; this is a heart on a stick. And how can anyone stay mad at that?

Stephen Brolan

* Album review to follow shortly.