Phoxjaw – ‘notverynicecream’

By Katherine Allvey

Early 2020, despite being three short years ago, was an entirely different time. We could go out for as long as we wanted, meet in as big a group as we liked, and Phoxjaw had just released their debut album. ‘Royal Swan’ was a distinctly British first record which had an externalising power and a flavour that seemed to touch all those idiosyncratic reaches of this sceptred isle’s culture. But then the pandemic happened and the world seemed to shrink. Phoxjaw’s music took a turn for the claustrophobic, becoming more dense, crystallised and compact like nihilistic cane sugar, still with that delicious candy quality but shaded by nostalgia for how the world was before we all had to stay inside. 

‘Notverynicecream’, their second album and the result of their isolation, is a tremendously complex and layered achievement that seemingly takes its cues from Biffy Clyro, The National and Gary Numan in equal measure. If you want a primer to the immersive geometric world of Phoxjaw, look no further than ‘thesaddestsongever’; geological chords pierce the sky while Danny Garland’s voice churns through the heavy background. It’s a song that feels familiar, like how you’d imagine Arcade Fire to sound if someone was describing them to you but you’d never heard them yourself. 

The wonderful ‘tortoise’ opens with this desolate repetition of “I think I’ve got a screw loose”, before this colossal guitar-driven indie avalanche crashes into you and you’re under layers upon layers of intelligent production. The dark is rising on this album; the screeching metal guitar and otherworldly doll voices on ‘knives’ are the stuff of nightmares, only compounded by the muttered lines of “I like it when you play with knives,” but when the chorus drops and they get into their full frenzy, it’s clear that this is a theatrical murder performance set to a postmodern pop chase sequence. The oppressive storm clouds of ‘serpentsdripfromtheskies’ are dense, raining that grinding, sword-sharpening guitar over Josh Gallop’s masterfully creepy keyboard drops, and the oppressive broken fairground atmosphere of ‘apples’ is wonderfully and endlessly grinding.  It does make you wonder how much the lockdown turned the Bristolian quartet’s brains to angry porridge, and whether they took their opportunity to get outside for an hour a day.

The clouds do sometimes open for a moment of sunshine to lighten proceedings. “It’s big and and orange and lives up in the sky, it’s beautiful and do you know why? It sends out lots of ultraviolet rays…” is how the clashing glory of ‘sungazer’ announces the subject of the song, and the gentle, tropical tones propel spirits upwards before the sonic equivalent of the earth exploding hits your ears. Phoxjax still have that quintessentially English wordplay like lines from a BBC radio drama between those cavernous wails and distortion, and there’s hints of a Sparks-like playfulness among the landscape. Some songs might even be called danceable – ‘thelastmackerel’ has big beats like a manifesto to throw shapes to in the indie disco, and enough drama for the headbangers to get their hair flick fix. 

This is a brilliant record operating in a very break plane of existence, somewhat parallel to the south coast of England in the midst of dread about humanity’s fall to a flu-like plague. It’s not going to hit the top of the charts, or become a dark little ear worm to haunt your sensible daily life, but it’s the sort of album you have to just contemplate the vastness of from a safe distance. It’ll provoke thought and wonderment from the festival crowds this summer, and probably more than a touch of bemusement as Phoxjaw offer to “take you to Lyme Regis” in the midst of apocalyptic chords.  Phoxjaw have created that rare thing: a truly intelligent and intriguing album that’ll touch your mind, and leave you reeling from the experience. 

KATE ALLVEY

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