Columbia Records · March 30, 2018
So, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines on their fourth LP? After the 2015 release of English Graffiti, a hyper-stylized dream-pop reinvention of sound, and the departure of drummer Pete Robertson in 2016, the British indie-rock band left us not really knowing what to expect at all. But since the release of ‘I Can’t Quit’ and the four more singles that followed, it has quickly become clear that what we could expect from The Vaccines was a return to a guitar-driven, classic rock feel. Combat Sports takes The Vaccines back to that foundation of their original sound, while also mixing in vibrant 70s and 80s pop and glam-rock influences. The result is an energetic compilation of music that seems to hit a sweet spot for the group in terms of finding their sound in hopes to be more than “just another indie-rock band.”
Clocking in at just above thirty minutes, Combat Sports packs punches in small doses, with a varied but unified collection of post-punk rock anthems, mid-tempo pop nostalgia, and a sultry pared down ballad smack in the middle of it all. Front man Justin Young invigorates each song with his clever lyricism and rich imagery, touting in the opening lines of ‘Out on the Street,’ “Who put bars across your window of opportunity? / Did you see? / You called me a broken record, but I’ll, but I’ll never be.” The entire album also exudes a maturity in the production, which feels polished and well-thought out while still keeping the fuzzy, rough-around-the-edges, carefree quality that all good rock bands seem to possess.
The aforementioned pop nostalgia is most prevalent in tracks like ‘Your Love Is My Favourite Band,’ which is an upbeat number reminiscent of 80s new-wave. Another example of imagery on the album, this song uses the metaphor of one’s favorite band to talk about love, and references turning on the radio (!) and “waiting up for number one.” Some may think of this comparison as cliché-sounding and unexpectedly wholesome for the Vaccines, but I’m sure most people taking the time to read this review would appreciate and understand how truly great a love can be for a band or a song.
The punkier ‘Nightclub’ comes in with an aggressive, manic angst and has a guitar riff that for some reason I feel compelled to describe as mischievous, like it’s being played with a smirk. ‘I Can’t Quit’ is another one of the more hard-hitting tracks on the album, and has a garage rock feel that could have fit right in on the band’s 2011 debut, What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?). These songs have an agitated edge to them, which is portrayed well in Young’s vocals and is one of the more exciting aspects of The Vaccines as a band. Although the lighter, more shimmery pop-rock tracks take the majority on this album, the guitar-driven punk thrill is still unquestionably present.
The latter four tracks of Combat Sports present the most cohesive run of the album, with each song flowing smoothly into the next, while also being able to stand on their own. Starting with ‘Out on the Street’ and finishing off with ‘Rolling Stones,’ these songs are catchy indie-rock tunes with just the right blend of danceable retro pop groove. It feels like this final portion of the album points sonically where the Vaccines have landed now as a band, striking a balance between guitar rock and indie-pop. One of the strengths of the Vaccines as a band is being able to grow as a band in a genuine way—every shift has felt intentional without feeling forced.
Combat Sports ultimately puts up a good fight. The entire record is an enjoyable play, with enough raw rock to satisfy the old fans and lively pop to please the passing listener. There are some great moments, and some good moments, and nothing really bad—but whether or not the album stands out in a memorable way is a valid consideration. Combat Sports solidifies the Vaccines as a formidable act, but the boundaries weren’t pushed enough to make it a total knockout. Perhaps it didn’t need to be, though. The Vaccines have been consistent British indie-rock frontrunners since their debut. Eight years and four albums later, they are ending the Combat Sports tour at London’s 10,000 seat capacity Alexandra Palace. The Vaccines are an indie-rock band, for sure – but it’s safe to say they are not “just another indie-rock band.”