March 12, 2008
Antidotes // Transgressive
7 / 10
How To Deal With Hype, lesson #1: on Never Mind The Buzzcocks earlier this year, Foals frontman Yannis Philippakis received the traditional ribbing from Simon Amstell about their status as buzz band of the moment. “You wake up every morning, there’s the buzz,” joshed the punchable presenter. “Any plans to convert this buzz into success?”
Yannis barely flinched. “We’ve made a record that’s just solid drones for 40 minutes and no songs. It’s funny… all these people have tipped us and it’s absolutely unlistenable.” He was deadpanning, of course. Wasn’t he?Stick ‘Antidotes’ on and the first thing you hear is… a drone. Five sustained blasts of brass, veering in and out of harmony, eerily, ominously, for 25 seconds. Then the drums crash in, punching out a fierce, tribal rhythm before gliding into a more familiar punk-funk groove, textured by cosmic guitar ripples and joined finally by Foals sarcastically chanting the slogan from a French TV advert for Lacoste tennis gear while the trumpets swoop and groan in the background. Solid drones and songs! Welcome to Foals’ world, where having your cake and eating it is the staple diet.
Foals are the brainy, mathletic puzzle-popsters who know how to rock a party; the ambitious sonic voyagers who’d rather play a gig in your garden shed than at the Brixton Academy – and then, after their legion of excitable followers have trashed it, they’d humbly stick around and design you a chic but practical new outhouse extension. More than that, they are the one British band who can rival Battles, !!!, Dirty Projectors or Holy Fuck for cortex-knotting thrills. They’ve not just talked the talk in terms of obscure reference points, they’ve quested beyond their comfort zone to collaborate with Brooklyn art-rock ubermensch Dave Sitek and the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. On ‘Antidotes’, Foals haven’t wandered off the map – the droning brass intro and the glitchy breakdown of ‘Like Swimming’ are as experimental as they get – but they’ve rendered their world in vivid, exotic hues.
How To Deal With Hype, Lesson #2. ‘Antidotes’ gives us plenty to chew on. Yannis’ lyrics can often appear cryptic but there are clues to where his head’s at. Mostly he’s railing against the clutter of modern life: the trivia you’re constantly force-fed by the mass media to keep your brain sedated, “these wasps’ nests in your head” (‘Red Socks Pugie’).
The album title promises solutions that never come and ‘Balloons’ and ‘Olympic Airways’ deal in escapism. However, there’s something sinister in the way the latter suggests you can solve all your problems by insulating yourself against the world in “an aviary for today”. ‘Antidotes’ ends with Yannis warning, “Something won’t heal, comforts can’t help you out” before he’s engulfed by those atonal trumpets. It’s not just because they come from Oxford that Foals have been called the new Radiohead.How To Deal With Hype, lesson #3. By abandoning popular 2007 singles ‘Hummer’ and ‘Mathletics’ Foals are aligning themselves with the likes of New Order (‘Blue Monday’ was controversially left off ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’) – a band whose obstinacy and capriciousness was almost as much a part of their legend as their music. ‘Cassius’ and ‘Balloons’ are sturdy replacements, their slight, insidious choruses embedded in concrete structures that owe more to dance than rock. Foals’ stated aim was to recreate the feel of techno tracks – repetitive basslines, layering of sounds, build-ups and breakdowns – with live instruments. There are no lazy chords; instruments slither purposefully over and around each other.
Their debut sounds sleek and exhilarating, although Foals seem cautious about completely breaking out of the punk-funk strictures that have confined them so far. They hop nimbly from one foot to the other to give the illusion of progress, but ultimately repeat themselves: ‘Two Steps, Twice’ jolts to an inventive rhythm but its nuts and bolts are almost identical to those of ‘Cassius’ (which itself isn’t a million miles away from ‘Hummer’) and it shamefacedly shoplifts a riff directly from The Cure’s ‘A Forest’. The Rapture and !!! should also be expecting some kind of sleeve credit. If there’s one dark shadow over this album, though, it’s that there’s a lot of tension and precious little release. Too much anguished yelping and not enough joy – a mood that ultimately becomes a bit oppressive. When Foals open the pressure valve on ‘Red Socks Pugie’ (“our heart swells up, which make us explode”) it’s the best moment on the album. Foals remixed ‘Antidotes’ in London, complaining that Dave Sitek made it sound like it was “recorded in the Grand Canyon” – but perhaps they should have ceded to his widescreen vision after all. How To Deal With Hype, lesson #4. Make a really good album but not a great one. Let reviewers remind everyone Radiohead’s first album was not ‘The Bends’ but ‘Pablo Honey’. Alert everyone to your potential but don’t fulfill it. Remain enigmatic while firing out enough tuff rhythms to keep us dancing. Textbook stuff from the Oxford fivesome, then.
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