Reviews of Foals’ latest record, Holy Fire, have been largely underscored by constant reference to progression and maturity, so it’s perhaps a little surprising to see them playing the Academy tonight, a venue they’ve sold out with ease twice before; the first time I saw them was here, way back in 2008, towards the back end of their commitments for Antidotes.
That isn’t to say, though, that there aren’t obvious signs of development elsewhere. The signature instrumental opener is present and correct, but tonight’s is a different beast entirely from their Antidotes-era intro, ‘XXXXX’; if the intention is to draw the crowd into a frenzy, then ‘Prelude’ aims for controlled chaos – its hypnotic groove builds gradually, carefully, towards a climactic clash of guitars. It serves nicely as a microcosm of the sonic road the band have been moving down 2010’s Total Life Forever, the title track of which swiftly follows; a rhythmically choppy number with a chant-along bridge, “let’s take life slow”, that offers another insight into the Foals mindset post-Antidotes.
I mention their first record because I’m of the generally unpopular opinion that Antidotes is Foals’ masterpiece; like some of their contemporaries’ debut efforts – Franz Ferdinand and Vampire Weekend spring to mind – it’s an album that they’ll likely spend the rest of their careers trying to top. Media coverage of Holy Fire widely suggests that the band have capitalised upon the promise displayed on Total Life Forever, with their debut paid little heed and often dismissed as uneven, or weak outwith the singles; it’s a view that makes the mind boggle on tonight’s evidence, where Antidotes provides a slew of set highlights.
The urgent opening of ‘Balloons’, drums racing over interlocking guitar lines that tick like time bombs, remains one of the most thrilling weapons in the Foals arsenal, whilst ‘Olympic Airways’ proves that raucous singlaongs can still be atmospheric. ‘Electric Bloom’ provides a memorable set closer; it’s the perfect platform for Yannis Phillippakis to prove why he’s fast becoming one of rock’s most engaging frontmen, howling the track’s refrain as he less plays a floor tom than brutally assaults it. I still haven’t mentioned ‘Red Socks Pugie’, a song frequently singled out by the band as the one they’re most proud of; desolate verses, driven by little more than vocals and drums, explode into a full-throated roar of a chorus, with the band eschewing the recorded version’s gradual fade out in favour of a rollicking instrumental outro.
It’s not difficult, then, to understand why Foals aren’t quite as frenetic a live force as they were back when those songs were all they had to offer; Total Life Forever moved into more expansive territory, with mixed results. ‘Spanish Sahara’ is unquestionably the band’s lighters-aloft moment, and has all the anthemic properties required to work perfectly in the live environment. ‘After Glow’ on the other hand, is turgid, uninspired and disastrously-placed in the thick of a number of similarly-downtempo numbers, including the vastly superior ‘Late Night’, which is abound with something I felt Total Life Forever, for the most part, lacked: atmosphere. There’s obvious ambition in the decision to include the more reflective likes of ‘Milk and Black Spiders’ and ‘Moon’ tonight, but the predictably-boisterous Saturday night crowd don’t really give them a chance.
Foals’ finer moments on the last two records have come when they’ve embraced their funkier side; ‘Miami’ and ‘My Number’ are taken from different records, but clearly born of the same influence – they’re perfectly-constructed, hook-driven pop stompers, showcasing the band’s sharp ear for combining melody and groove and providing the evening’s most irresistibly danceable moments.
Foals are at a crossroads; never more popular and never more ambitious, bigger venues than the Academies they’re frequenting on this current jaunt are now less calling their name than screaming it. When they finally get there, starting with a couple of shows at the Royal Albert Hall later this month, they’ll have a precarious balance to strike; the newer material is bound to sound huge, but they can ill afford to lose any more of what once made their live shows genuinely thrilling; if they can bring both the rawness of Antidotes and the sheen of Holy Fire to the inevitable two-night stand at the Apollo later in the year, they could represent one of the most potent live propositions you’ll find anywhere.