The Boxer Rebellion formed in London in 2001, and the four-piece is comprised of Tennessee-native Nathan Nicholson (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Australian Todd Howe (lead guitar), and Englishmen Adam Harrison (bass) and Piers Hewitt (drums); the band draw their name from the infamous 1898 rebellious uprising in China. Promises is their fourth LP and is the follow-up to 2011’s The Cold Still, and previous releases Union (2009) and Exits (2005). The London-based quartet made digital history (of a kind) when their second album Union became the first self-released album to break into the US Top 100 on digital sales alone.
Album opener Diamonds announces itself with a burst of punchy percussion from Hewitt before it’s joined by Howe’s spindly guitars and Nicholson’s trademark melancholia tinged vocals. Though he might hail from Tennessee, Nicholson sings straight from the Thom Yorke template of gloomy existential anguish: in this track the character is seemingly plagued by guilt from the fallout of a previous broken relationship. It’s a dark track but structured in such a way that it makes you want to dance, evoking recollections of The Verve and Editors. Still, though it’s undeniably moving, there’s not a massive amount to distinguish the band from their more well-known peers: early Radiohead, The National, Arcade Fire.
Fragile is a more uplifting track– a mesh of pounding drums and driving bass, whilst the band slow the pace down for Low– a gentle life-affirming number (despite the misery infused repeated refrain of “don’t be loved”) coated with twinkling piano keys on which Nicholson’s voice has never sounded better.
“And I won’t regret, I won’t feel defeat/ And it won’t make any difference if I’m incomplete…” is the telling lyric on the U2-esque Keep Moving, which sees Nicholson sounding at his most like Bono-like. The track is a mash of thumping drum rolls and soaring keyboards and there’s a clutch of anthemic woah-wohs to drive home the epic nature of the sound. The track bearing the album’s name is the album closer– a slow burning beauty of a song which makes no attempt to hide its stadium-rock pretensions with the lead singer’s soaring chorus of “we can make promises, forget the way we live…”
Promises is a solid and technically competent album that is well produced and offers moments of anthemic beauty and cinematic angst, but it lacks that haunting sparkle; a glimmer of a little more originality might have made it fantastic. The Boxer Rebellion are in this for the long game though- they might just find that missing spark next time on album number five.
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