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REVIEWS: The Boxer Rebellion, Royal Bangs, Senryu at Steve Wildsmith

Steve Wildsmith

A cross between Rolling Stone, Soldier of Fortune and the Oxford American

REVIEWS: The Boxer Rebellion, Royal Bangs, Senryu

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The Boxer Rebellion, “The Cold Still”

Release date: Out now (Absentee Recordings)

If you were not at the Clayton Center for the Arts on the Maryville College campus last October to see The Boxer Rebellion perform, don’t tell me. Because your absence makes me want to slap you.

Not only did you miss an absolutely amazing show, you probably helped ensure that the band — fronted by singer Nathan Nicholson — won’t be performing in this area for quite a while. I hope that’s not the case, but when you do well to fill 300 seats of a 1,400-person venue … and the audience sits for most of the show even though you’re parting their hair with some amazing rock ‘n’ roll … well, can you blame them?

If they pass up East Tennessee on future tours (and we’re certainly not a stop on the recently announced U.S. jaunt), then that, to put it crudely, sucks hairy testicles. Because this band … right now … is doing something amazing.

They’re not reinventing the wheel here, and the boys will be the first to tell you that. They’re humble, good-natured dudes who just want to play music. What makes “The Cold Still,” the band’s most recent album so bloody brilliant (sorry; their Britishness affected me momentarily) is the context of it. Go back and listen to “Exits,” the band’s first full-length. Linger a little while listening to “Union,” released in 2009. Then, I think, will you full appreciate just how committed these musicians are to growing and evolving and making the next album even better than the last.

The record kicks off with the beautifully haunting “No Harm,” a somber dirge that allows Nicholson’s vocals room to soar. Producer Ethan Johns is the album’s mastermind, and his deft touch turns a good song into something amazing at about the 1:20 mark, when bassist Adam Harrison’s few simple notes rise to the surface with the breathtaking beauty of a dolphin breaching the waves a few yards away. “Step Out of the Car,” the lead-off single/track, is certainly a high point — it’s got the dark energy and the razor-sharp guitar work of Todd Howe and comes as close as anything to replicating the big sounds off of “Union.” (Naturally, it was the choice for the guys to play when they rocked “Late Night with David Letterman” on Feb. 2.)

But the somber mood prevails — sometimes with urgency, as on the song “Locked In the Basement,” and sometimes with a swirling kaleidoscope of vibrating sonic flourishes, as on “Caught By the Light.” Then there’s a track like “Organ Song,” which sounds similar to, and as good as anything on, The National’s 2010 masterpiece “High Violet.” Once again, the band takes something beautiful and elevates it — this time at about the 2:12 mark, when the melody circles back on itself and Nicholson’s repetitive refrain builds into a ballad of urgency and longing.

The album fades on even quieter notes — the hushed, haunting “Doubt,” which features Nicholson’s croon reduced to a near whisper, with other instruments slowly adding to the understated mix. It’s unlike anything long-time fans will expect from The Boxer Rebellion, but in my opinion, that’s a good thing. After all, this band makes Blount County look good, and the boys are so genuine, so spot-on nice that they deserve continued success. If their subsequent efforts add to their catalog the way “The Cold Still” does, they’ll surely have it.


Royal Bangs, “Flux Outside”

Release date: March 29 (Glassnote Records)

Although the three members of Royal Bangs (Sam Stratton, Ryan Schaefer, Chris Rusk) are Southern boys, I do not know if they like gravy. Nor do I have any idea why, upon listening to “Flux Outside,” the forthcoming new album from the Knoxville electro-rockers, would my brain think of gravy, that quintessentially Southern condiment that so often gets poured over biscuits but goes quite well with mashed potatoes, country ham and just about any other food product. Other than making myself hungry, the association is rather pointless and stupid, but that’s what I think of — electronic gravy.

It would be easy to declare that “Flux Otuside” is the album the Bangs have been working so hard to make, but that’s a retarded statement. Of course it’s the album they’ve been working so hard to make, but it’s brilliance (yes, it is brilliant) doesn’t diminish “Let It Beep,” the album the guys put out in 2009 on Audio Eagle. I loved that record and still do; “Poison Control” may be among my Top 20 Most Favorite Songs Ever, because listening to it makes me feel like I’ve been French-kissing a light socket. Everything synapse seems to fire faster and better and with laser-beam focus and intensity.

For the new album, the Bangs have taken everything that was good about “Let It Beep” and smothered it (in electronic gravy) — which is to say that as delectable as the last album was, this one’s even better. All of the white space, the little moments of linear progression that came closest to resembling the verse-chorus-verse structure of traditional songs, has been covered up — augmented, if you will — by skittering sounds both obvious and barely noticeable. The guys have refined their manic energy and amplified it with pops, buzzes, beeps, clicks and all manner of electronic sound effects. The end result is an album that kicks off frantic with “Grass Helmet” and doesn’t allow the trio to come up for air until the sixth track, “Bad News, Strange Luck” — and even that maintains a normal heartrate for about 2 minutes, until the guys plug back into the generator and swing full-tilt toward buzzsaw insanity once agan.

Personally, I lean toward the muscular feel of songs like “Triccs,” which roars from one side of the brain to the other on Rusk’s powerhouse pounding, snarling and growling like a muscle car barely hanging onto coastal road curves but never slowing down. And the guys get almost introspective on the final two tracks, which slow down considerably from the frenetic pace with which the album kicks off.

But wait — there’s more. There’s a shimmering, Toro y Moi-like swirling intro to the song “Fireball” that gives way to a bouncing, sunny groove … a throwback to the rhythmic sounds of the “Let It Beep” lead-off track “War Bells” on “Back Then It Was Different” … some chiming prettiness on “Silver Step” … and just, damn, a whole lot more. Each listen reveals something new, some hidden ingredient bubbling just beneath the surface that slowly bobs up, revealing itself as a seemingly inconsequential detail that, it turns out, elevates the overall serving of “Flux Outside” from something merely delicious to a dish that would move Chef Gordon Ramsay to tears.

What that is, what the Bangs have brought to the table for “Flux,” is the gravy. Because gravy makes everything better.


Senryu, “Half Wild”

Release date: April 1 (independent)

It’s a puzzling album title for anyone who’s seen Knoxville indie-pop band Senryu perform live.

“Half Wild”? Really? Because every time I’ve seen the group, “wild” doesn’t begin to do the live show justice. With evil genius Wil Wright at the helm, Senryu is a band of four Terminators programmed to rock and party, not necessarily in that order: “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever” … until you collapse from exhaustion because your ear drums feel like someone poured a package of Pop Rocks down your ear canal and topped them with a 2-liter bottle of Dr Pepper.

In fact, that’s always been the challenge for Wright and company — recording an album that does the band justice and comes as close as the impossibility of doing so allows to capturing that live energy in the studio. The genius is that the two animals, while closely related, are two separate vehicles for Senryu’s creative spirit.

In concert, you can usually count on a few things — a skull-crusher like the intense “I Am a Battering Ram” … the crowd-favorite “The Hometown Bounce” … the gorgeous and lush “Inklings,” which became the backdrop for a marriage proposal during Senryu’s show at The Longbranch Saloon last August. Generally speaking — and specifically so, when it comes to “Half Wild” — the studio becomes a playground, a laboratory for soundscapes and musical collages that seem pulled from some garishly vibrant palette of colors so vivid they seem almost edible. (Take, for example, the lead-off single “Great. Expectations.,” which I reviewed when it was first released.)

“Half Wild” kicks off on an almost quaint note with “A Change of Heart,” languid and breezy, tinkling xylophone notes and drumbeats building toward the 1:47 mark, when Wright’s plaintive, soulful singing gives way in a growl to an explosion of force. Here’s the beauty of “Half Wild,” though, and maybe it’s what gives the album it’s title — just when you think it’s going to jump the tracks and turn into something so chaotic and crazy it leaves you pounding your chest to make sure your heart is still pumping blood to vital organs, Wright and co. reel it back in.

That control, that measured pace, is maintained throughout much of “Half Wild.” Take a song like “Thunder Shook the House,” which grows toward a turbulent finish, sounding like something The Doors might have recorded if Jim Morrison’s drug of choice had been cocaine instead of everything else — the band works the listener to the edge of the seat, anticipating something primal, only to put a finger over protesting lips and ask for patience. It’s a scenario that gets repeated on “Halfwild Boys,” a track destined for live performance greatness, and for most of “Take Yourself Apart,” a madcap of melody that gives way to to the 45-second “Hyperventilator.”

That’s the turning point — in less than a minute, Wright channels angst, rage, frustration, desperation and finally lights the “Half Wild” fuse, letting it burn toward the detonation point … only to lick his thumb and forefinger, reach down at the last minute and extinguish that flame. The next song is so dreamy, so hypnotic, that by song’s end you’re not sure what’s going to happen next … whether this is the Senryu you’ve known for so long or something completely different … or whether the plodding coda of “Before It Happens” signals some cosmic shift toward a new field of stars.

“We’re gonna have to leave the rest behind,” Wright wails as the song, and the album, come to a close. Hearing that, and soaking up the complexity that is “Half Wild,” I feel more confident that if nothing else, “Half Wild” is a sign of good things to come — for the band, hopefully, but definitely for fans. God knows, Senryu deserves it, because Wright and his bandmates make sure that the fans always get what they deserve, even if they don’t know what that is until after they hear it.