Since 2018, Black Foxxes have been through the wringer. Their second album 'Reidi' reigned in some of the cacophonies of their debut in favour of slick arpeggios and atmospherics on a trip into the Big Wild of the Icelandic landscape. A stellar record, tensions bubbled under the surface however around the poppier choice of singles and the trajectory of the band. Touring fizzled out, and main-man Mark Holley ended the year playing new material written without the band in mind at solo shows. Radio silence in 2019 has been resoundingly broken with Mark releasing two solo EPs and, now, a new self-titled Black Foxxes album too. A band whose music is forged in rage and frustration, the process wasn't without its challenges; founding members Ant and Tris departed, and a new rhythm section was recruited while Mark continued to contend with the effects of chronic illness.
Those solo releases, an acoustic collection with partner Ciara Flint providing harmonies (as well as creating visuals for new Foxxes videos), and a collaboration with Bristol artist Poisonous Birds that experimented with drum programmes and artificial instruments, were released by Mark on Bandcamp earlier this year as he cleansed his palette ahead of the Foxxes' return.
"The Poisonous Birds EP was really in the transitionary period of understanding where Foxxes would be," he explains over the phone from his new digs in Edinburgh. "It's quite interesting that sound came out 'cause when I was writing with Tom [Ridley], I didn't know if that was gonna be the new Foxxes. I was talking to a lot of people, [BBC Radio 1 DJ] Dan Carter actually being one of them - he was giving me loads of advice. He was saying, 'Look, if this is the natural progression of the band, you should go for it'. But we took it to a practice room to make it big, and it was fun, it was really fucking cool. There were so many moving parts to it, but it felt like a step too far for Foxxes 'cause it really did feel totally different. I'm all for bending genres and sounds as a band, but it felt like a new band."
The line-up reshuffle, officially announced earlier this year, was a long time in the offing, with a post-tour break proving to be an endpoint for Mark's bandmates. "Tris came back after a few months and said his head was not in it. He lives down in Cornwall which is really remote, and it's just not for him anymore. As the songwriter in the band, the moment I heard that, it's all good by me - I'm never going to fall out with anyone for being honest. But you can't come back from that from a creative standpoint, so it's totally the right thing [to walk away]. If you've even got an inkling of that, you've got to say it and move on.
"Me and Ant tussled with the idea of continuing for a while. But after a few months, Ant decided it wasn't Foxxes for him, and he didn't want to continue with it, which I totally respect. It's one of those hard things, it's been amicable we haven't fallen out, and I respect those guys so much. But everyone's going to have a difference of opinion on this. I know for a fact that carrying on the band wasn't what everyone close to the band wanted to do," Mark admits.
"But I had to, I started the band myself seven years ago, and I did say to myself at the time that this was going to be my last real go at forming a career out of this. I wasn't ready to stop it. Getting Jack and Finn involved was a real breath of fresh air for me as a songwriter. Jack's my longest and oldest friend in the world, I lived next door to him growing up. When 'Badlands' got released, Jack came down to Chudleigh which is where we grew up, and there's this spot which is a huge quarry. We used to go up there as kids and talk about touring the world and writing music. We went up there when 'Badlands' released and considering we hadn't written music together since we were 18 or 20, it was a really cathartic feeling because it kind of came full circle, like there was a real purpose for what happened and why it happened. It's been a genuine pleasure writing music with those guys, they are phenomenal musicians. Sometimes a band needs a breath of fresh air and a kick up the arse."
Roaring back in July with that single 'Badlands', Black Foxxes have never sounded so expansive, experimental and unburdened. A hulking slab of stoner-rock guitar and visceral vocals, it's a nine-minute rock out that shifts halfway into a spiralling out that whirls upwards in dizzying fashion. It also marked the point Mark was inspired to refocus on the band having tried his hand writing for other projects. "[New bassist] Jack sent me just this 15-minute stoner rock riff, and I said to him, I can turn this into something so sick, and from that moment on that's when we started writing for Black Foxxes because it just felt like the right thing to do."
Follow-up teaser track 'Swim' then performed a full 180 demonstrating remarkable restraint in paring back the arrangement and resisting that loud chorus. "I really loved the mundane about it. I really love the middle of the road feel, three-part Beach Boys harmony with a fucking stadium rock Neil Young guitar solo at the end. I think if we came back after three years or however long without releasing music and just released 'Swim', we certainly wouldn't have got the ears that we had when we released 'Badlands'."
Having previously expressed regret about showcasing more 'radio-friendly' singles from 'reidi', releasing such jarring tunes to tease their comeback was the only way Black Foxxes could go. "Gut feeling is such a fucking thing, man and hindsight is a wonderful thing. Everyone will look back, any creative person, you'll always find something that you're unhappy with at some point with the work that you've done in the past. I think it's so important for the artist that you have to go with your gut whether it ends up being the right or the wrong thing. If that's the wrong thing at least, you're learning your way, and it's organic."
While in no way a piece written about the bizarre events of 2020, this album is a fitting companion in its themes and feel. These nine songs are dark, claustrophobic, and at times emotionally oppressive as they chart depression, isolation and the writer losing their sense of self.
'Panic', seemingly born from that Poisonous Birds collaboration, employs craftful autotune over Death Cab-guitar phrases, before ending abruptly amid a squall of distorted bass synth. 'Jungle Skies' tacks closest to the last album, a driving drum bassline carrying acoustic guitar and Holley's most restrained vocals.
'Drug Holiday' is one of the smartest pieces, a woozy guitar riff always bubbling under hushed vocals as the track simmers menacingly without ever boiling over. "I played a lot vocally with this one, taking influence from really random places like Billie Eilish. She does such interesting things with her voice where it's so delicate, but it's so loud in your ear. PJ Harvey does that a lot as well. Like, she whispers. And it's super menacing and uncomfortable to hear. But it's actually a very delicate song. The actual essence of the song is basically Nirvana 'In Utero'. It's just three dudes in the room playing, and it's a very spaced out sound. But then the choruses and the fact that there's no lead vocal? It's just those breaths; we wanted them to be really in your ear to be really uncomfortable."
Mark pauses before reflecting on making this self-titled, defining comeback album. "The whole point of this record is if we were going to do anything, it had to have purpose. So even tracks like 'Pacific' which meander, and they're smooth, and they're soft, it comes after a 30-second intro which is basically Dillinger Escape Plan or something.
So as a listener like you need that balance like you're craving for some middle of the road, easy listening after you hear that. So that's what we wanted for this record, we wanted something that is pushing the listener to their limits.
"Nowadays, there are so many great sounding records, but once you've heard three tracks, you've heard the whole album. They're mixed the same, the sonics are the same, the structures for every song in the same, especially in rock music. We just wanted to keep people second-guessing. We closed the album with a 10-minute track and a section which is a minute long, as loud as whichever track it was by Metallica, which I think it's on paper the loudest ever produced track in music. So after it, you need that calm. It's about keeping the listener engaged 'cause otherwise if you're not doing those things as a rock band now, it's just so stale and so predictable."
While dealing with label tension, line-up changes, and the heave to get this album recorded and out into the world, Mark has continued to grapple with the effects of living with Crohn's disease. "I've battled with on and off alopecia for the past 11 years of my life. During 2019 and the writing of this third record, my hair fell out entirely. Eyebrows. Beard. Hair. Arms. Legs. You fucking name it. I had put off shaving my hair for weeks/months, and it got to the point that no hat could cover the fact I just had no hair left. I wrote 'Jungle Skies' about depression and the weight of letting go."
That turmoil at watching part of your identity fall away in front of you feeds that tense atmosphere that gives the record its spark. "There's certainly something very surreal about viewing yourself in a mirror without any eyebrows. That was the most surreal and the most difficult to get over. I couldn't accept who I was for months and the music that came out was fierce and on the brink of madness, that reflects in my vocal performances and delivery across the record.
What were those first weeks like? "I just hid, to be honest. I was ashamed to even show my mum what I looked like. I think I put off more shit and bailed on more people in the three months after shaving my head than I have in my entire life. But out of that came a peace and love for myself that I've never felt before. I ended up getting microblading [tattoo-like pigmentation] done, and that changed my life. Having eyebrows is really a wonderful thing, and if mine ever grow back, I will cherish those little nuggets of joy until the end of time. But for now, I'm drawing my own eyebrows on, and it's badass, and I love it."
Having cast off outside influence and locking in to record an album on their own terms, Black Foxxes have created a curious, varied and timely release that plants a flag for challenging, alternative rock music that's delivered with both sonic savvy and earnest emotion.
"I reached lows I never realised I'd get to in 2019, but the most exciting part of all of it for me is that I never stopped, and I never gave up at any point. So I'll always remember that year fondly for that reason alone. Whatever happens to this band, wherever it goes, whatever career we have. I know I'll always be creating, and that's the most important thing."
Taken from the November issue of Upset. Black Foxxes' self-titled album is out 30th October.
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