Phoxjaw– ‘ROYAL SWAN’

By Ian Kenworthy

Cast your mind back to the children’s television show Stingray, and you may remember its famous opening ‘Anything Can Happen In The Next Half Hour’. Exactly the same phrase could used before one of Phoxjaw’s live shows. The Bristol four-piece’s music harks back to an earlier time, with clear roots in the early 2000s post-hardcore scene, and they earned a reputation with performances that were equal parts craziness and violence. Their debut album ‘Royal Swan’ might last a slightly less snappy ‘forty-five minutes’, but the sentiment is still true.

Playing an angular blend of off-kilter post-hardcore, Phoxjaw sound like the bastard child of The Horrors and The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster. Mixing scuzzy guitars, pounding rhythms and keyboards, they create a wall of sound, only to throw it into disarray with crooning, yelling, and noisy leads. You might also put them into the same category as Pulled Apart By Horses – because with so much buzz in their performances, their music has a lot to live up to.

On their first EP ’Goodbye Dinosaur’ the band delivered everything they promised. It was a collection of songs designed to demolish a room, laced with enough strange darkness to really capture the imagination. Last year’s EP ‘A Playground For Sad Adults’ followed in its footsteps, doubling down on the weirdness; while the band had a clearly developed sound, though, it seemed they weren’t quite sure what to do with it. The results were slightly listless, and felt well-trodden – especially when they experimented with longer-form songs. Seemingly aware of this, the band decamped to Devil’s Bridge Cottage in the middle of the Welsh nowhere to record their debut album.

‘Royal Swan’ is the product of their isolation. Alone with their influences, they’ve concocted and distilled without distraction, and it’s clear from the get-go just how well it has paid off. All twelve songs feel focused, no matter which direction they fly off in. Anything really can happen. While the sound fits comfortably with that of their first two EPs, here they display a mastery over it; no single moment is wasted, offering a series of confident brushstrokes that paint a dark, emotional picture.

While you’d hardly call it a calming experience, the album is as much about atmosphere as it is about making a racket. Every song here is alarmingly creative with each approaching the band’s sound from a different direction, be it the gentle throb of ‘Teething’ or the stuttering, repeating synth loop underscoring ‘Triple AAA’. When they do spread their wings – most notably on the title track – they’re still squeezing out ideas at the seven minute mark, which is a real achievement.

Anchoring their angular soundscapes with an undercurrent of melody, the band has discovered how to keep themselves on track. As a result, the songs don’t get lost, no matter how much thrashing around guitarists Josh Gallup and Alexander Share are doing. Surprisingly, it does seem a little restrained and as such, the overall sound is slightly more muted than you might expect.

That said, however, you can pick any one song and it will have at least one explosive punch. ‘The Monk’ and ‘Trophies In The Attic’, for example, have no shortage of riffs, battering you this way and that like a carefully orchestrated storm. Never wanting to come off as a one trick pony, the band also work tirelessly to blend together a series of different sounds, and so while songs like ‘Infinite Badness’ are keyboard based, you’re never too far from the weighty thump of a guitar either.

Recorded by the band in-house (or more accurately, in-cottage) the production enhances the songs, giving each instrument an opportunity to bite, making for a layered, rich sound. Just listen out for the dainty swagger of ‘Infinite Badness’, or the buzzing of Danny Garland’s bass on ‘Triple AAA’. Even the relatively pedestrian ‘An Owl Is A Cat With Wings’ has a strangely hypnotic quality. The drums also deserve a special mention as veteran producer Lewis Johns was drafted in to capture a specific sound. His input adds depth,  bringing extra flare when needed, chiefly during the noisiest sections of ‘The Monk’.

Throughout, the vocals shift in style, but are largely presented as a distancing indie-rock croon, building atmosphere and also hooking you in. They’re more about texture and tone than anything, however, meaning few songs will grab you immediately. Despite this, there are catchy choruses and a rich vein of dark humour running through the album and even the gratuitously noisy ‘You Don’t Drink A Unicorn’s Blood’ has enough wry warmth in its boozy chorus to keep you coming back for more.

The album’s greatest asset is that every song is built around a strong melody, and one of the joys is digging around trying to find where it has been buried. On songs like ‘Infinite Badness’ it shimmers on the surface, but on ‘Trophies in the Attic’ it is obscured by acerbic guitars and yells. Of course, the band excel at playing with your expectations in the most interesting ways and are clearly having fun while doing so. If you’ve ever wondered what the term ‘gleeful exuberance’ means, just wait for the wild organ solo on ‘Bats For Bleeding’. It’s like early Biffy Clyro decided to soundtrack an evil funfair.

With ‘Royal Swan’ Phoxjaw have created a sort of Frankenstein’s monster that basks in its own stitched-together beauty. More streamlined than restrained, the sound is not designed to set room alight – instead it’s more likely to creep into your subconscious, and is all the better for it. It’s focused and fun, but feels loose and wild enough to thrill. This is a strong debut album, proving that although anything can happen, you won’t want to miss a moment of it. It’s bound to cause a storm when they finally get to play these songs live.

IAN KENWORTHY

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