[9 November 2007]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Unlike a lot of rock music coming to us from across the pond, Champion Kickboxer is not going to grab you immediately. Their songs aren’t full of hooks you’ve almost heard before. Their choruses aren’t always giant anthems. The production on Perforations isn’t slick and synth-heavy. In other words, to get into Champion Kickboxer, you need to do some work. In fact, the band seems to demand it, as they unapologetically tip song after song off its axis, daring the listener to follow along, to see if the track rights itself, or hangs there on the cusp of collapse, or falls off into shambles.
More often than not, Perforations finds the band steering us right. Their brand of guitar pop is ramshackle. The drums sound like they’re battling the other instruments more often than carrying them along. The songs stop and start, stutter through the motions, almost intentionally avoiding typical structure. In the end, Champion Kickboxer doesn’t have a sound that is much different from the other English indie band’s that have successfully crossed over to the states. But, their delivery of orchestral pop is left field enough to give them their own identity in a sea of hair product and skinny jeans.
Perhaps the most interesting element of Perforations is the band’s use of vocal harmonies. The Beach Boys influence is right out there on their sleeve, but they execute the harmonies perfectly, giving these songs a smooth element that rubs up against all the other harsh, crumbling bits of these songs. Early on in the record, songs like “Io”, “Get On Up”, and the title track put the band’s sparse instrumentation on display, letting their harmonies fill in the many holes left by scant guitar and the drums that often cut out, leaving only hand claps. The songs seem a little aimless, occasionally building some momentum when the cymbals get louder and the guitar bangs out some chords, only to fall back into their start-stop beginnings.
But it isn’t until halfway into the record, with “Maximum”, that the band shows its true range. The band starts at its quietest yet. Vocalist Tom Bates stays quiet, sometimes letting his band mates’ backing vocals overtake his own. There’s a faint synth line over staccato guitar, and the faintest of drumbeats. But at the two-minute mark, the drums start to steady themselves, the backing vocals fall out, and the song starts to come together and chug headlong and unabated. And in the moment where it seems its going to fade out, the harmonies come back in sounding like a choir, Bates starts screaming, and the drums land hard on snare and cymbal. It is the biggest moment on the record, and is seems carefully chosen.
That most of the other songs here avoid that kind of build shows the band’s restraint. “Like Him + Her + Her + Me”, the album’s second best track behind “Maximum”, seems like another logical candidate for a freak out. It is just Bates’ vocals and drums to start off. But when the guitar and bass and keys join in, they leave enough space in the track for us to feel what Bates feels. The +s in the title render the relationships of the song impersonal, disconnected. And by using the instruments sparsely here, to let Bates’ vocals stand naked rather than cover them up, the band delivers the subtlest moment on Perforations, and lets us hear their range. The song builds towards the end, but rather than build in volume, like “Maximum” does, it just becomes more lush and filled-out before ending as bare-bones as it started, Bates still alone.
The band can occasionally go too far in avoiding discernable melody, being happy to maintain their kitchen-sink sound that sometimes pushes the record into homogeny. But when they nail it, Champion Kickboxer carves out their own distinct niche in the well-populated world of British guitar pop. And while a few of these songs might lose their luster upon repeated listens, most of Perforations gets more intricate and compelling with time, introducing us to a band that is strong on their debut album, and poised to get even stronger.