When you listen to their recordings, London indie rockers The Boxer Rebellion seem mysterious and aloof, almost invisible behind a shimmering membrane of hazy guitars. Live, it’s still definitely clear that their music belongs in higher domains than the spotlit, dusty upstairs gig room at the Cambridge Barfly.
But this, coupled with the band’s powerful immediacy when they’re playing at their best – muscular drumming, urgent guitar lines and high, yearning vocals – is what makes them such a compelling stage presence.
Drummer Piers Hewitt is roughspoken. ‘It’s not quite a full time job,’ he says. ‘We’re not actually on a label at the moment, so we’re not touring much… They used to give us these two or three week breaks, and we didn’t want them.’ A band like The Boxer Rebellion, with their debut full-length Exits (heralded as a Coldplay-killer) more than two years behind them, are at a frustrating professional cusp, and at the moment their breaks are far longer than they’d like. But that might change with the imminent, as yet untitled release of their highly anticipated second album.
Wave67, the band’s local support, describe themselves as having “one foot on the dancefloor and one in the moshpit”. Their sound is varied, but imagine a funky space disco sampler sent back in time from the 2080s crashing into a hard, rocky asteroid with Juno Reactor on board. The crowd gradually build through Wave67’s set and by the time The Boxer Rebellion take the stage the room is packed.
The distant, rumbling menace of the drums that open Flashing Red Light Means Go is pitted against a simple bassline and fluid, swaying guitars; this is The Boxer Rebellion at their most aggressive, and sounds like the milder moments of a band like Idiot Pilot. On a few other cuts, such as the deceptively straightforward Watermelon, Hewitt carries the rest of the band in his pulsing wake. But most of the time, he’s floating on the sea of sound, following rather than leading and letting it carry him along, and you feel yourself following suit. You could drift to the the moon on the dreamy Soviets, letting it propel you up through a gently churning stratosphere of riff-shaped clouds.
Nathan Nicholson’s full, creamy voice deserves a mention. He never strays from his sweet falsetto, which winds snake-like between the musical caverns and crevices summoned by his band, and on stage he never hits a wrong note despite his difficult part on We Have This Place Surrounded: ‘You want it,’ he cries. Yes, we do.
It’s not all magic and beauty; the extended, meditative nature of a lot of The Boxer Rebellion’s output inevitably means that some of their songs tend to run into each other. But the band’s winning combination of sophistication (they show ripples of Oceansize, a band they have supported) and anthemic U2-like hooks won’t let them down.