For an art form that’s only been around a hundred some years, recorded music has a hell of a time topping itself. The basically criteria-less genre of “alternative rock” is filled with bands trying desperately not to retread old territory, which is kind of weird, given that this so-called “old territory” dates back mostly to the ’80s (with the advent of college rock), if not the ’90s (the advent of Pearl Jam).
Londoners The Boxer Rebellion are next in the line of up-and-comers trying to stand out as something more than just one of those bands. They do have one thing going for them: a great name. Unfortunately, they navigate that spacey, arena-rock territory that hasn’t been novel since U2, which, despite modern bands’ best efforts, often feels highly been-there-done-that. Big guitars, pounding drums, soaring vocals — the only element here that could be called original is the prominence of singer Nathan Nicholson’s falsetto. But Radiohead has been doing that for more than a decade…and a lot more effectively.
Union suffers from a lack of purpose. It’s big, it’s reverby – but what for? When the sound is asking this much, the lyrics have to offer something. People didn’t listen to Arcade Fire just because they sounded like they had something to say; they listened because they heard “We’re just a million little gods causing rain storms/Turning every good thing to dust,” and this meant something to them.
“Forces/Dark forces/Are everywhere,” Nicholson sings ad nauseum on “Forces.” All right. So what? I need some specificity, some compelling turn of phrase, something to make me care. Come on, guys, don’t just sing at me. Make me sing along! Many of the other tracks fail for this reason: “Move On,” “Spitting Fire,” “Semi-automatic.” The ingredients of something beautiful are there — earnestness, that raw fuzz in the distortion, a purposeful beat. But it’s missing that lyrical and melodic something that makes you grin like an idiot, turn up the volume, repeat and repeat.
There are flickers of greatness: single “Evacuate” is catchy and compelling. The guitars pulse like sirens, Nicholson’s voice is raw to the point of beauty, and murmured background vocals create a fantastically ghostly atmosphere. Raw, loud, passionate, this is an anthem I can sing along to. “Soviets,” too, stands high above its peers. “I’m sorry” may be one of the oldest choruses in the book, but Nicholson’s aching voice gives it new life. These songs make me wonder why Nicholson spends so much of the album in falsetto, his power is greater in his normal range. But everything great feels like a beautiful accident amidst a lot of aimlessness. The Boxer Rebellion could be the next Radiohead — or at least the next Coldplay — but not without a lot of work.
I’ll close with what may be Webcuts’ nerdiest reference to date: On “Once More With Feeling,” the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, having been brought back from the dead only to face a demon who makes everyone sing, an ennui-engulfed Buffy sings, “Don’t give me songs/Give me something to sing about.” The Boxer Rebellion’s got the former. Now let’s hear the latter.