Highly regarded indie musicians The Boxer Rebellion are releasing their fifth studio album, Ocean by Ocean on April 29. The meltdown that was the music industry world circa 2000 forced The Boxer Rebellion to be nimble in finding some way other then the prior well beaten path to survive. Very shortly after their debut release the band suddenly found their label no longer existed. This coincided with their arrival at the cusp of stardom awaiting the final big push over the rim. In spite of that setback Boxer Rebellion has in many ways become an acclaimed and successful band. They have utilized many outside the box ways to survive in an over-saturated marketplace with little or no label assistance and along the way have become an underground sensation. They are a band that once encountered make you wonder how you missed their existence.
The Boxer Rebellion formed in 2001 in a most 21st century way, on the internet. Nathan Nicholson, front-man vocalist, guitarist and keyboards connected with then member Todd Howe on a musicians’ website. Nicholson had just arrived in London from his native Tennessee looking to form a band and revel in the indie musical surroundings of the UK. The two added Adam Harrison on bass and Piers Hewitt on drums to complete the initial lineup. Things were clicking along nicely with a stint at Glastonbury in the New Bands tent in 2003, releasing an eponymous EP and signing to Poptone records. In 2004 they were openers for A Perfect Circle and Lenny Kravitz at the London Astoria. 2005 saw the release of their debut Exits which built their recognition factor and gained them numerous positive critical reviews. Two weeks after the release of Exits disaster struck as Poptone records imploded.
The band was forced to consider how to continue. Through extensive gigging, and licensing of their music for TV, movies, video games and commercials the band was able to amass enough money to self release their second album, Union in 2009. Thankfully the effort and dedication the band put into the album paid off with a very positive reception that helped the band survive and thrive. Within five days of its release “Union” reached number 4 on ITunes UK top 100 albums and number 2 on the alternative chart. The album became the first to break into the Billboard album chart with only a digital release and no physical release. The success of “Union” forced changes in how digital album downloads would be counted on the charts. Since that time the band has been a critic favorite and garnered a solid following of fans with their releases of 2011’s The Cold Still and 2013’s Promises along with live and compilation albums.
With the Britrock wave receding, The Boxer Rebellion emerged from the end of that period adding elements of post rock to the charts. Their sound has been best characterized as “The Bends era Radiohead”. Well into their second decade of musicianship the new release finds a band facing more challenges and changes. Their biggest challenge was the departure of Todd Howe the lead guitarist and the installation of his replacement Andrew Smith. The band has on Ocean by Ocean morphed away from their “The Bends” sonic treatments into an even larger arena ready sound. Ocean by Ocean is brooding, ruminative, and bittersweet at times. It is also filled with majestic and cathedral like soundscapes drawing comparisons to Sigur Ros and Talk Talk. Overall the latest album shows a deepening maturity and skill. The release finds the band members settled in their personal lives as partners, husbands, and fathers all in their 30’s and these experiences lending new inspiration to their work. The band looks backward to move forward, hinting at this with their retro 80’s surfer cool cover. They begin the album with Weapon, a song that is an intentional radio playlist magnet. It utilizes a cool wave vibe and is at is core sensual and yearning. The song is a refreshing listen making it easy to slide into the vibe of the release.
Big Ideas is a Foals tinged math rocker. The tension of the sparse play echoes over the atmospheric soundscape makes for an anathematic rocker. The song’s lyrics speak to missed opportunities and meeting the right person at the wrong time. The sonics build and build to a dramatic and worthy payoff. The cathedral like Lets Disappear blends synths and tight drum loops making for a very oscillating feel. Nicholson’s vocals are a stand out on the track. The lyrics represent escapism and the craving to hide from the things going on in the world as it spins further out of control. I can’t say enough about how captivating the rhythm section is on this track. The Boxer Rebellion totally delivers on Pull Yourself Together. Here the band channels the Cocteau Twins with an otherworldly aura. The song is dreamy and ethereal with gorgeous spiraling guitar and strings. The lyrics turn on the pleas of loved ones begging you to pull yourself together if not for yourself then for others, “Pull yourself together for me.” The over arching theme can be read as forgiving yourself can be the hardest thing to do.
The song Firework is exactly that, it is a soaring explosion. The synths and guitars shimmer as the band utilized a heap of Edge inspired guitar. The crisp drums and Nicholson’s vaulted vocals do the rest of the work turning in a brilliant track that is something to encounter.
It is more than half way through the album when I am snagged by Keep Me Close. It is an electronica influenced tune that just will not let you go. There is a spectacular weaving of sensual and sincere with a smoky vocal from Nicholson. It is simple but arresting and I had to give it a few repeated listens before I could continue with the album. It is my favorite track and all by itself makes the album worth the price of purchase.
Redemption changes things up to an acoustic accompaniment. It is another song that captures you as it expands out of the speakers and does not let go. The song expounds on the idea that you can end up pretty low but it is never too late to try again, “You can really fall if you don’t know yourself at all …all I wanted was something different, something worth losing everything.” The band racks up another winning song with this selection.
The visceral yearning on The Fog I was Lost In is heartfelt and evocative. The track uses a wonky synth to create the atmosphere of confusion that we all from time to time get lost within. The lyrics discuss the things we get distracted by that make us lose our way. You Can Love Me is spellbinding, channeling a Simple Mind’s Charlie Burchill guitar treatment. The fantastic shimmering guitar spirals and expands producing magnificent grandeur. Each song on the release builds on the success of the prior track. Especially noteworthy is the attention paid to sequencing in the final section of the album that has the band delivering strong and differentiated tracks as they hold the listener’s attention with their skilled works. It is evident that a lot of effort was put into the track list with a successful outcome.
The final selection Let it Go is not a cover of the oft sung Disney tune but a solid rocker filled with existential angst about approaching middle age. It examines the paradox of wanting to feel happy but feeling so sad,” I choose to be happy, so why do I feel so sad?” In the end the advice is you have to make a conscious decision to be happy and not dwell on the failures and setbacks because time is fleeting. The crystalline accompaniment on the track builds and builds the drama to a crescendo providing a strong finish to an extraordinary release.
The Boxer Rebellion has stated one of the reasons for their continued existence is their desire to stop the listener in their tracks. Ocean By Ocean delivers on that desire. The songs are individually engaging and together on their nuanced track list provide an arresting listening experience. There are familiar inspirational guideposts along the way, with the Cocteau Twins, U2, Radiohead and Simple Minds somewhere in the mix whispering suggestions, but all of those influences are expertly blended through the band’s own apt musicianship and experience. If you are serious about your alternative music listening experiences this is a band to become familiar with; you won’t regret it. Here is hoping that these survivors get the wider recognition they so deserve.