Hot on the heels of the release of latest album Ocean by Ocean, The Boxer Rebellion have only just embarked upon this current tour, which will ultimately cover vast swathes of Europe and North America over the next six months. The journey won’t draw to a close until a celebratory show at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 7th December, so the sold-out crowd in Manchester’s Deaf Institute tonight are particularly blessed to experience this vital and compelling act while they are still fresh. The new record has introduced a significant and incredibly satisfying twist to the band’s sophisticated brand of melancholia in the form of a more electronic, retro approach and tonight is only the third date that the band have performed the new tracks live. It was therefore going to be interesting to see how the new material translates on The Deaf Institute’s compact and intimate stage.
Before we can find out, Joseph Lofthouse delivers a superbly accomplished solo set of acoustic songs, demonstrating particularly strong vocals as well as an eye for evocative, visual storytelling in his compositions. This is complimented by some pretty deft guitar work which ensures the Lancashire native never seems isolated on the stage as his sound is rich, full of passion and flows from the heart.
The Boxer Rebellion’s last visit to the city saw the band play select tracks from The Cold Still and Promises and many of the signature songs from these records, as well as Union and Exits are aired tonight, but it is the opportunity to experience the Ocean by Ocean material that is particularly intriguing. Nathan Nicholson and co. open with Keep Me Close which is a slow-burning introduction to the slight shift in style that the new record demonstrates. The resonant synths bring to mind nineties Massive Attack but Nicholson’s distinctive falsetto drives the song in new directions and guitarist Andrew Smith provides fluid and tranquil tones that possess a sombre air that is so fundamental to the band’s demeanour. The Runner quickly follows and is an early highlight with it’s desperate urgency allowing Nicholson to open up aggressively and the song’s dark undertones violently spill out, thrilling the assorted crowd squeezed into this evening’s excellent venue situated in the heart of the university district. Always maintains the gripping pace of the previous track and the crowd’s enthusiastic response to this song as well as New York, Promises and Diamonds clearly demonstrates the creative peak which the album Promises represented when it was released in 2013.
What becomes apparent as the evening progresses is how the new record is scaling new heights as it builds upon these creative foundations, ultimately allowing the band to introduce an incredibly satisfying balance to proceedings. Proof then that the new record is very definitely an artistic step forwards in the band’s evolution. Let’s Disappear’s ruminative tones this evening are clearly rooted in their familiar songwriting approach, but the musical shift, which has more sombre undertones proves to be more reflective yet no less satisfying than the more aggressive approach the band take on next tracks Semi-Automatic and Evacuate for example.
Big Ideas is a particularly pertinent title for the lead single off the new album. It clearly demonstrates how the band are moving forward and performed live, the soaring melodies and satisfyingly retro tones have a determined grip that won’t let go. It’s an epic delight which the band become immersed in as the murky themes of the song swirl intoxicatingly around us.
The Boxer Rebellion’s material must be incredibly challenging vocally, requiring a range most singers would be completely unable to achieve and Nicholson’s rare struggles to hit the high notes that certain songs demand is noticeable once or twice in such a small venue. This does not detract from the overall quality of the show however, which is a completely spellbinding and captivating experience. It proves that the band are just getting better and better with age. As usual though, it is a return to 2010’s Union which closes out the show this evening and the band subtly break into what becomes an extended and completely immense rendition of The Gospel of Goro Adachi. The song illustrates the band’s clear bond as the exquisite introduction builds to an almighty crescendo of feedback amidst the relentless percussion, all performed with a fiery intensity that becomes irresistible in it’s presentation and those in attendance finally leave still confounded by our inability to work out why this band still aren’t considered to be one of the most important acts performing in this county at the moment. Because they are!
The Boxer Rebellion
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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto