When reviewing albums, it is uncommon to come across a record that captures your attention from the outset, holds it until the very end, and leaves you desperate for more. Even more surprising than stumbling across such a release is having it be a debut album. From a three piece from Exeter, England, no less. It may be wild speculation, but I suspect the story behind I’m Not Well from Black Foxxes will involve midnight meetings at crossroads, and dealings with shady underworld denizens, as guitarist and vocalist Mark Holley, bassist Tristan Jane, and drummer Ant Thornton have delivered an album that provides such a surprise.
As the band’s frontman, Holley makes no secret of his struggles with Crohn’s disease, depression, and anxiety, so the title I’m Not Well clearly isn’t just an artistic affectation, but rather a reflection on the self-identity and emotional states of those living with invisible and chronic illnesses. From the outset, with the eponymous I’m Not Well, Black Foxxes work with a sound that is a well executed update on grunge/post-grunge/90s alternative-rock, making full use of dynamic range, demonstrating a commitment to emotionally authentic vocals, and all with the clarity of modern recording techniques. The drums are alive with nuance and texture, the bass doesn’t overwhelm the bottom end, the guitar is crisp or fuzzy as required, and Holley’s voice yelps and waivers.
A solid command of structure is evident on Whatever Lets You Cope, which builds and flows, and River, which introduces a slight prog-rock flavour to proceedings as it develops through its five-minute duration, eschewing an obvious verse-chorus-verse structure. A chugging bassline juxtaposes with a rubbery guitar riff on How We Rust, and Maple Summer’s groove is infectious. Home – borrowed from 2014’s Pines EP, along with River and, album closer, Pines – stands out as it writhes and seethes, equal parts longing and lament for homebound solitude. Ending the song mid-sentence – and chord progression – drives home the song’s ambivalence and exemplifies the fragility of plans made by people with conditions such as Holley’s.
Concluding I’m Not Well with Pines was an excellent choice, as the track is spacious enough to allow the listener to contemplate the preceding songs, acting to ease the audience out of the album, while also being progressive enough to maintain attention and reflect the strong musicianship and songwriting of Holley, Jane, and Thornton. It would be easy to dismiss I’m Not Well as a morose tract of woe – and in many ways it is that – but it is ultimately more. The music alone is energetic and catchy enough for those who wish to avoid the “darker” aspects of life, complex enough to not merely be ear-candy, and all delivered with enough conviction to let you know that these boys from Exeter are serious. Prepare to hear Black Foxxes a lot more.