The Boxer Rebellion defies the 'rock 'n' roll paradigm' to great effect on this ambitious, if spotty, debut.
"Pay attention because the Icarus Line's story is quite possibly the best rock 'n' roll story in the making, because rock 'n' roll is mainly about beginnings, about youth and uncertainty and growing through and out of them By the time they had even become the Icarus Line, they had already spent their high school years in shitty vans to play shitty shitholes. They fired their manager, booking agent, lawyer, and rhythm section all at once, and when record labels showed interest in the band, they replied with their latest demo, which consisted of a 12-minute long song. The suits concluded that these guys were too weird to make any money off of Meltdowns (always commonly on the road) include being chased out of town (literally) by angry promoters, fistfights with soundmen and crew members, arrests, being sued, entire back-lines and stages destroyed, and guitar cases containing Stevie Ray Vaughn's guitar being smashed open (it seemed inappropriate for such a pretty guitar not to be used). The consequences of the last instance included multiple death threats Have you been longing for a band to come along that encompasses everything that rock 'n' roll was originally about? All that cool shit you read about in Mojo you know danger, excitement, tour, tour, tour, sex, drugs, & rock 'n' roll? In closing, the Icarus Line are the best rock 'n' roll band in the entire world right now " --excerpts from the press sheet for the Icarus Line's Penance Soiree, by Travis Keller
As a music reviewer, you'd like to hope you eventually become immune to press junkets and bios, and I thought I had until the above was penned in early 2004, announcing the imminent arrival of the Icarus Line's first major label offering, Penance Soiree. This one struck a nerve, and not for the reasons its writer intended -- unless it was written as a parody. I didn't realize why I was having such a visceral reaction at first, but subsequent readings and further reflection revealed the source of my ire.
The Icarus Line bio is perhaps the most cynical and twisted interpretation of rock 'n' roll I have ever come across. If its author is to be believed, your worth as a rock band rests on your credentials. Traveled to shitty venues in shitty vans? Check. Been deemed "weird" by label "suits"? Check. Logged a few arrests? Fights? Smashed your instruments? Check, check, and check again. And apparently, that's enough to qualify as the "best rock 'n' roll band in the world right now." Note also that the writer suggests these experiences are also what rock 'n' roll was "originally about."
The Icarus Line's press sheet is just the most obvious and calculated example of what has become quite commonplace: defining rock 'n' roll as conveyor belt role playing, or more precisely, cliché. Boyhood friends start band, make unholy racket in parents' basement, play dive bars, do drugs, weather in-fighting, earn their stripes, cut a record, and go on to fill stadiums. However, in adhering to such a rigid and tired script, the artists themselves must lose much of what rock 'n' roll was, in truth, "originally about." Contrary to what Mr. Icarus Line Press Sheet Writer may think, rock 'n' roll was never about rubbing your chest in broken glass or punching concert promoters -- to say so would be to reduce rock 'n' roll to a sad game of gimmickry and mimicry. These shitty venues, the arrests, the instrument smashing are meant to make our would-be heroes appear unlikely or triumphant despite their fuck-ups, and to convey some conceptual form of human struggle. Instead, their actions come across as mere prerequisite, press sheet fodder for the inevitable major label debut. This is what passes for "original" rock n' roll?
If rock 'n' roll credentials are measured by press-sheet appeal, the Boxer Rebellion are perhaps the most un-rock 'n' roll band on the planet right now. Aside from having a vocalist that frequently sings upper-register falsetto a la Thom Yorke (or JJ72's Mark Greaney if we're being totally honest), the rest of the Boxer Rebellion appears more concerned with keeping warm than demonstrating any sort of fashion sense. (Their press photos feature the band clad in woolen overcoats and scarves.) But perhaps their greatest affront to the accepted rock 'n' roll paradigm is how they formed: via an Internet message board. Guitarist Todd Howe, an Australian who had moved to England, placed an ad on an unnamed board for a songwriting partner and potential bandmate. After three weeks, the one reply he had received was from an American named Nathan Nicholson. By October 2001, the final line-up with drummer Piers Hewitt and bassist Adam Harrison had finally been set. The band christened themselves the Boxer Rebellion in late 2002, after consulting, yes, a history encyclopedia.
Ironically, depending on how you look at it, all these facts may make the Boxer Rebellion the most rock 'n' roll band of 2005. They don't exactly trumpet the aforementioned details (they offer no bio via their web site), but they're not exactly swept under the rug either. The Boxer Rebellion make no apologies for their genesis. If anything, they flaunt their outsider status with Exits, a debut album that snubs the rock 'n' roll of the modern age in favor of grand, sprawling mini-suites. The Boxer Rebellion are more than a little reminiscent of the golden era of the multi-tracked guitar -- seemingly beamed directly from England circa 1991, when shoe-gazers ruled the land. For sure, not the definition of rock in 2005.
Still, to deny the band's gifts on the basis of poor timing would be grossly unfair. The stunning attention to their craft is rare and notable -- especially at a time when the music itself is more often designed to sound tossed off between cigarette breaks. The patience and care are evident in songs like "Never Knowing How or Why", "We Have This Place Surrounded", and the eulogistic lament of "Lay Me Down". Each unfurl with deliberate and assured confidence that can only come from a band that knows just how damn good their songs are.
Sadly, if the band are aware of their own gifts, they occasionally seem embarrassed by them. For every wondrous Verve-like flirtation with bursting guitars, there is an incongruous attempt at menace, which hardly suits or sounds convincing when paired with Nicholson's honeyed larynx. His growl on opener "Flight" is near comical in its earnest commitment to threaten. Even "Watermelon", which I initially enjoyed when it was released as the band's first single in late 2003, sounds hopelessly out of place when compared with far more ambitious material. The Boxers' evolution has rendered it little more than antiquated curiosity, a quaint tribute to BRMC perhaps. ("You say you want cigarettes / well I want guuuuuuuuurls").
Exits is not what it could have been, but even so there's ample promise. Assuming they ever fully indulge their wild-eyed shoe-gazer tendencies, the Boxer Rebellion will almost certainly realize a great album. All of the essential elements are there. However, in the interim, Exits still manages to explore vast expanses of terrain that have been left lying fallow for years. Its unusualness is reason enough to celebrate -- and needs no biographical aid to make its impression.