FOALS – THE EVOLUTION OF A BIG, ANGRY BRITISH BAND
With their latest album ‘What Went Down’ now out on release, I look at the Brit rockers and how they have evolved to reach their current status – and what they could do next to improve their distinctive sound.
‘Impassioned’ is most likely how you would now describe rock band Foals, who formed in Oxford in 2005 and have since pursued a career in heavy riffs, never-ending crescendos and singing as though possessed (on the part of lead singer Yannis Philippakis).
Their particular brand of rock, which tends to alternate between more subtle melodies and louder guitar-based songs, is certainly a singular aural experience. Foals songs often build up to a frenzied conclusion involving every instrument plus the kitchen sink, with Philippakis singing (nay, frequently shouting) as though hellbent on the vital importance of us understanding what he’s on about. Listening to Foals is like your ears having a gentle go-around in the washing machine before graduating to being battered by a cement mixer going at full tilt.
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However, they didn’t start out like that. Foals have sometimes been referred to in the past as performing ‘Math rock’, essentially guitar-fuelled experimental rock, and that may well be the case. But it was much more measured at the start of their career. With quiet, lilting songs like ‘Olympic Airways’ and ‘Like Swimming’, dissonance appeared to be the order of the day on their first album Antidotes, paving the way for a few more conventional-sounding rock songs on their second album Total Life Forever, like ‘Miami’ and the album’s title track.
But herein also came the advent of the now-permanent fixture of their repertoire, the 5-6 minute epic. ‘Black Gold,’ ‘Blue Blood’ and ‘Spanish Sahara’ paved the way for this, but on their follow-up Holy Fire, Foals appeared to fuse their experimental sound with stadium-filling rock better than ever before. This resulted in catchy singles ‘My Number’ and ‘Inhaler’, alongside more introspective tracks like ‘Late Night’, ‘Moon’ and ‘Stepson’.
Their latest effort, What Went Down, appears to return to the territory of album number two, but projecting their confidence after the success of Holy Fire. The mix of subtlety and heavy rock is still there, but there appears to be nothing to distinguish it from previous albums. ‘Mountain at My Gates’ is a good foot-tapping rock song, but everything aside from this is simply in the ‘Quiet’ Camp or the ‘Loud Crescendo’ Camp (especially the raucous ‘What Went Down’). Foals have talent in abundance, but they need to avoid getting stuck in a rut.
So there is still the feeling that Foals haven’t quite yet found the midpoint between subtlety and ear-bashing. And their long-time niggles still persist – they have an ear for a good all-round rock tune, but sometimes have no idea when to finish one. Their songs are now almost always upwards of 4 minutes long, and that’s a problem. If they can’t be more versatile and ruthless in editing, listeners and fans may turn away from them.
And it often seems the case that Philippakis goes over the top with the shouting. His passion cannot be doubted, but sometimes meaning would not go amiss. The noise is now too regularly a feature of their music, and though it sometimes works well, it just as often does not, and must not become a regular hallmark.
You fear that, in the rush to be edgy along with other contemporary rock bands of the ilk of the Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian (who have been known to try their hand at social commentary), Foals are throwing everything at it purely to try and be different. They need to say out with the shouting and the noise, or at least try to harness them both more effectively. But most importantly, they need to learn how to slow down and let their music do the talking for them.