Foals’ musical journey has so far been in a clear, uninterrupted direction.
Their 2007 debut, Antidotes, a high energy, sparse salvo of danceable math-rock, established them as cult indie darlings. 2010’s Total Life Forever brought them to wider public knowledge by refining and expanding their sound. It also contained the wonderful, slow-burning ‘Spanish Sahara’, a career-best track the band have been trying, and failing, to reproduce ever since.
It was 2013’s Holy Fire, a bigger, darker, heavier beast, that marked Foals’ first step towards Muse-esque stadium rock. A sound on which they doubled down for 2015’s What Went Down. The bass became deeper, the guitars louder, the drums heavier.
So it’s a welcome relief that their latest album, the first in a two-part series, sprinkles in more of their former musical intricacy and texture, even if it means sacrificing some of the coherence of their earlier work.
As its title, a replacement for working title End Of Days, suggests, the lyrics also move more into observational territory. Foals depart here from the often opaque metaphors of the past. Themes of climate change and political corrosion loom large, even if they’re not addressed consistently enough to make this the ‘state-of-the-world’ opus the band may have hoped it would be.
Echoes of the Past
The icy vocal synths and sparse guitar that usher in opening track ‘Moonlight’ instantly recall Total Life Forever at its most chills-inducing. It’s a hauntingly beautiful opener that serves as a statement of intent. This will not be a re-run of What Went Down.
Frontman Yannis Philippakis’ fondness for off-kilter math-rock beats make a welcome return. ‘Cafe D’Athens’, with its unorthodox Afrobeat-influenced rhythm and splashes of marimba, marks the album’s most esoteric moment. ‘On The Luna’ marries Simple Minds-esque synth stabs with a glam-rock cowbell intro and an intriguingly odd-time groove. Put simply, Foals haven’t been this mathsy in a while, and I love it.
Of course, the album’s floor-fillers are not to be dismissed. ‘White Onions’ is a straight-up rock belter, complete with pounding drums and roaring guitar. It wouldn’t be out of place on Holy Fire or What Went Down, and will have indie kids making a beeline for the dancefloor.
Likewise current single ‘In Degrees’, whose surging synth bassline and disco beat bring to mind a poppier Nine Inch Nails. It’ll doubtless be a highlight of the band’s festival sets this summer, and it’s good to see that Foals’ renewed self-discovery hasn’t come at the expense of their sense of fun.
It also benefits from not having an obligatory attempt to recreate ‘Spanish Sahara’, as was ‘Late Night’ on Holy Fire, and ‘London Thunder’ on What Went Down.
The album’s primary weakness is its lyrical messaging.
A doomy, apocalyptic feel certainly pervades it. “The sea eats the sky, but they say it’s a lie….The world’s upside down” observes Philippakis on single ‘Exits’, whose ferocious groove can’t excuse its hanging around a touch too long.
Penultimate track ‘Sunday’, which lurches awkwardly from Tears For Fears-esque languor to frenetic rave and back again, has him somewhat more blase, “Cities burn, we don’t give a damn, ’cause we got all our friends right here….We got youth to spend”.
Essentially, Foals’ ‘state-of-the-world’ record can’t decide whether it wants to hide under the table or party in the face of Armageddon. Closing track “I’m Done With The World (& It’s Done With Me)” a somewhat uninteresting piano ballad, is unduly conclusive for an album with ‘Part 1’ in its title.
More downbeat moments like this make the album too sad to be a doomsday-party record, but its floor-fillers make it too frenetic to be the dystopian reflection the band were going for.
Its lack of musical cohesion isn’t a problem, and in fact enhances its tapestry. The lack of thematic cohesion, unfortunately, is.
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