Imagine a landscape piece of A4 paper. At one end there is a picture of Tony Allen, Fela Kuti’s drummer and Afrobeat pioneer and at the other end of the sheet is Robert Smith of The Cure. Strands of Fat Bob’s back-combed barnet are stretched across the page and they’ve become entangled in Mr Allen’s prestigious afro. Screw your eyes up and it looks a bit like a musical stave.
Peer very closely through a magnifying glass and you can see miniscule figures walking backwards and forwards along the lines formed by locks of hair like little leaf-cutter ants. All of them are carrying big cut-out notes. There go all of the Tom Tom Club. They pass Ladysmith; Timbaland; Osibisa; the rhythm section of Siouxsie and the Banshees; Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers of The Police. But not Sting. And there’s minimalist composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass arguing over a crotchet while all of Mogwai dance around with semi-quavers to the side of that.
Some people will find this madness. Others perhaps their album of the year. Whatever, this is certainly an arresting, stop what you’re doing and pay attention, album. Even on first listen.
If you didn’t know better you’d guess this was James Allan from Glasvegas on vocals. Why has Yannis Philippakis sung this track in a Glasgae accent? No matter: this is just jaw-dropping. If you want to set your stall out well, what better way than opening with something better than anything you’ve done up until this moment?
Effortlessly trilling guitar lines are as much old Foals as they are the modern composition of Sonic Youth associate Glenn Branca. “You’ve got blue blood on your hands/I think it’s my own”, sings YP plaintively while the music turns into the sick sweet lurch that you feel in a club just before your stomach flips over.
This is their so-called hip hop track. And if you think of it in purely those terms, you’re missing the pure delight of what it actually is. YP goes a bit Jay-Z for about four seconds and almost starts rapping about “salt in your wounds” and there’s something about the fetishisation of sleek ’80s beats, sampled, cut up and looped that rings true but really this is The Cure in their ‘Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me’ pomp throwing down a banging afrobeat stomper. And is brilliant for it.
‘Total Life Forever’
Pure pop Cure again mixed with the twitchy, speed-withdrawal punk ska of early Police. But then it all vanishes and what is left behind is a group who have an understanding of pop’s dynamics similar to that of Animal Collective. The vocals build in semi-rounds, with lazy handclaps and the reach for crescendo, somehow, reminds you of acid house gone organic before flipping effortlessly back into twitchy Foals disco mode.
Both the title track and ‘Black Gold’, with its refrain of “the future is not what it used to be” refer to American futurist Raymond Kurzweil’s unsettling vision of ‘The Singularity’, when human beings eventually evolve into artificially intelligent digital beings. It sounds like very early New Order if they had also featured Manchester legend, Durutti Column man and former Morrissey guitarist Vini Reilly playing sweet soul music.
As sparse and as gentle as the title suggests; the only other current band who would allow this much space into a track are The xx. This allows you to hear how Yannis’ vocals have come on, showing vulnerability in the grand tradition of Robert Wyatt or Guy Garvey. It builds satisfyingly to a crashing conclusion that wouldn’t sound out of place on Delphic’s recent debut.
This track showcases the band’s new production technique of human sequencing which involves the group standing round a huge sheet of paper that contains a grid indicating when the multiple vocalists should make themselves heard, like a huge, fleshy version of Cubase. The overall effect is very pleasant, like Steve Reich conducting a barbershop quartet.
Atmospheric piano interlude only 43 seconds long owing as much to Brian Eno as it does to Michael Nyman.
This is the closest to the old (ie young) Foals with its itchy, insistent, yelping groove that feels uncomfortable in its own skin. Skittering disco punk hi-hats and a guitar line of shattering icicles points the way out of the armchair, to the dancefloor perhaps. Just when it sounds like it’s getting a bit too contemplative, satisfying slabs of overdriven bass with the needles in the red are deployed.
If Foals were Duran Duran, this would be their ‘Save A Prayer’ but they aren’t, so it’s ‘Alabaster’ with haunting use of backing vocals, popping up in bursts, mirroring the kind of finger-tapping approach to playing the guitar that they’re known for. This is mature yet emotionally deep indie rock but it must be said, even though there are ballpark similarities to Coldplay, they don’t stand up to any kind of analysis; they do remind one of a slightly more adventurous Doves or Elbow at full pelt on these more contemplative tracks.
The combination of as light-as-meltwater, post rock, trilling guitars, with a reverb-heavy 4AD art rock sound here, masks even deeper aqueous bursts of Robert Fripp-style ambient six string effects. This in turn is just a mask for abyssal dub FX and mixing-desk trickery. Everything about this record says ‘headphone contemplation’. Time is a luxury in which to peel back the gossamer layer after layer of sound. There’s a hint of the krautrock/shoegaze production that Geoff Barrow did for the Horrors last year.
Again, this is the sound of a band comfortable with themselves, not leaping about trying to plug every gap in the audible spectrum range with yelping vocals, bursts of bass, clicking rhythm overdubs and frantically deployed guitar lines. A band willing to let the space between the instruments breathe and resound. Much kudos must be given to former Clor man Luke Smith who recorded this record for capturing an immense, late-’80s production job where everything can be picked out in perfect clarity.
Foals’ follow up to Antidotes has seen them make an effortless jump from being a band with ambition who talked a good game to the real deal. Boring old cunts who sit round moaning that there’s no really good forward-looking music – that doesn’t sound like Karlheinz Stockhausen being sick into a sampler – should prepare to STFU.
Some of the more hysterical audio elements that saw them occasionally running in Bloc Party’s slipstream and some of the slightly unconvincing math rock overtones that saw them dubbed Oxford’s premier Battles tribute act have evaporated. Sonically speaking they’ve lost their puppy fat and now they look gorgeous.