Like many love affairs, my introduction to Foals was not a good one. Back in 2007, I was living in dull ol’Hull with my now ex-boyfriend, stuck in a 2-bed poky terraced house & he was discovering a new Oxford band who were making major waves on the indie scene we were both so fond of. This band were a bunch of squeaky-voiced skinny students who were representing the burgeoning “math-rock” scene, and got exposure thanks to “Skins”, the gritty teen Channel 4 sex, drugs’n’nudity “What Top Shop Are Currently Selling To Da Kidz, Blud” drama of the day. I’ve always been a hard woman to win over musically, and their pre-pubescent squeaky white-boy Afro-rock guitar stylings didn’t really convince me at the time. My ex’s repeated protestations didn’t help either (I’m a demon for wanting to go against the opinion of those close to me).
Anyway. Fast forward to early 2013. Ex was exactly that, a thing of the past, and I had found myself a new life and new home in Leeds after a few years of huge emotional, career and geographic transition. I started working from home 2 days a week, and got myself into a cosy domestic routine of listening to BBC 6 Music in the living room whilst performing perfunctory duties on my laptop (the job may have changed, but that habit hasn’t). 6 Music reminded me so much of my youth in numerous ways – it delivered the alternative music diet by radio intake I so sorely lacked since I moved to the UK. In Ireland I spent my late teens and most of my twenties listening to a wonderful station called Phantom FM, which not only fulfilled my musical nutritional needs and educated me, but also gave me some wonderful lifelong friends. 6 Music was the only station I had discovered since moving to the UK in 2006 where I could enjoy an intimate feed of a diverse variety of both old and new music that was sadly missing from other mainstream media.
So I was happily enjoying a musical renaissance of sorts. Moving away from staid, bad old habits reminding me of a couple of years (and people) I’d rather forget. While also enjoying a renewed social life and still feeling young. In the background, a funky, sleek lil’ disco track was soundtracking my newfound sense of fun and creative freedom – a track named “My Number”. 3 minutes of sleek disco pop that Nile Rogers could have baked up in his musical microwave. Too elegant & Halston-clad to be lazily labelled as indie-disco pop. If it was a man, it would have bought me a drink and charmed me enough to put a smile on my face. The sort of song I’d look forward to hearing on a night out, of which there were many at that time.
However, the dating suddenly took a more serious turn a few months later and the relationship was truly made official when they released “Late Night”. To this day I feel it’s the greatest Steely Dan song Donald Fagen never put his name to, and quite possibly one of my favourite songs of all time. It grabbed me on first listen, probably because its appropriately-titled atmospheric sound appealed directly to my nocturnal night-owl ways. The mournful Rhodes piano, gentle, subtle disco drum beat, Yannis’ increasingly pleading vocal and orgasmic climax (something I’ve noticed Foals are incredibly skilled at) conveying a dark, emotional night of intimate congress that I’ve never heard before. And the guitar bridge towards the end… Christ! Talk about a guitar riff matching the increasingly plaintive and emotional vocal. Absolutely superb song. And the video for it also is just as intense, if not more so. Filmed in a sleazy Romanian hotel, the band perform below 3 rooms where a single mother is giving birth, a young couple are having sex and a troubled man involved in organised crime is about to successfully commit suicide. All of this convinced me thoroughly that Foals were the real deal, and I was very much a satisfied punter upon buying their “Holy Fire” album.
2 months later I found myself at home on Friday night when the BBC’s annual Glastonbury coverage was on. Foals were the first act who were being shown that night, having been given the penultimate sunset Other Stage billing. Well a fourth dimension had suddenly been introduced into my relationship with the Oxford lads. Despite still being in their twenties (and showing clear maturity and progression from their math-rock Antidotes period), the band displayed a harder punch than the heavyweight champion of the world. Several of their tracks from previous albums which sounded geeky and anaemic on record sounded incredibly threatening, incendiary and trancendal when performed live, Total Life Forever and the utterly insane set-closer Two Steps Twice being two examples. Again, for a hardened recovering musical snob who was hard to win over, Foals had impressed me, made me drunk with admiration and bowled me over, like a charming, handsome date surprising me with a trip to Paris for the weekend.
That sunny summer brought some more magnificent Foals discoveries – the glorious pure, unpretentious pop of Bad Habit, their stripped-down CCTV sessions I discovered via YouTube (the word “ac***ic” was not once used or relevant) and I invested in a ticket to see them in the Manchester Apollo in 2014. In 2013 they played some 155 concerts which shows an incredible work ethic and commitment to intense, quality musicianship. Reviews for their performances since 2013 have been consistently positive and strong, and it’s of little surprise. Several YouTube explorations have proved the band to be non-contrived, displaying consistent high quality, and yet they stick to little motifs (Yannis’ habit of playing a guitar strapped highly upon his body, Walter’s hidden but highly audible and excellent bass technique and Jack Bevan’s powerful death-metal inspired drums) that keep the band unique & maintain their identity.
The 2014 Manchester concert came as no surprise to me in its quality. Intense, planned and choreographed sufficiently to allow the band to perform in their own natural rawness, and yet whet the appetite of the audience (the band played the rousing “Nautilus” by Anna Meredith before coming on stage, in order to whip the audience up into a hungry rock-craving frenzy), they played a set which was on the level of their oh-so-intense Latitude 2013 set (please, please check this out on YouTube if you can. The band at their absolute zenith). Yannis hurled himself into the crowd guitar strapped around his shoulders, an experience he replicates at all their concerts because “it’s exactly how I feel when I’m at a gig, I want the band to throw themselves at me and be immersed inside them”. To say that I left the concert exhausted and spent was an understatement. A marvellous experience. I saw them later that year, also in Manchester, at the not-entirely-pleasant Parklife festival. The band were last on the bill after a long day of rain & mud, and admittedly I was worse the wear after a bag of boxed wine and several trips on log flume rides that my gloriously insane pal Dawne had dragged me on, so my memories of the concert itself aren’t great. And an outdoor generic festival in Heaton Park in Manchester doesn’t really compare to the intensity and intimacy of the Apollo, admittedly. But my love for the band never died throughout 2014 & 2015.
June 2015 saw the arrival of highly-anticipated new music, in the shape of “What Went Down”, the first single from the album of same name. A highly aggressive, menacing, right-hook hammer blow of a track, it left the listener shocked, stunned and commanded attention. I was partially expecting to be disappointed by their new material, and happily, this wasn’t the case. During a year in my life that brought frightening, insecure news and developments, this proved to be a strangely accurate soundtrack. I’d go as far as to say that What Went Down is Foals’ “Gimme Shelter”, it has a similar effect on the listener, it’s not easy listening but can appropriately soundtrack uneasy times, and with events in the news during 2015, slotted in nicely. The resulting album in August didn’t disappoint either, however I will say it carries more filler than “Holy Fire” (Night Swimmers & Lonely Hunter are distinctly average tracks in my not-so-humble opinion). And perhaps they may have rushed its release? Who knows. However, if that was the case, it fits in with the band’s hunger and desire to play live. And upon seeing them in Liverpool in November 2015, this was hugely obvious. Coupled with Yannis now upgrading his crowdsurfing to hurling himself off the venue’s balcony seating some 12 feet in the air. Sans paralysis and injury of any kind.
Album tracks like “Birch Tree” with its nods towards early 80s hip-hop rhythms whilst maintaining their historic much loved Afrobeat-style guitars (a nod to Yannis’ maternal South African roots), “Albatross” (which has inspired me in my new-found running hobby during 2015 and will no doubt be heavily used by BBC Sports), the moody evocative “London Thunder” and the relentlessly funky rock of “Mountain At My Gates” still make for an incredibly strong album that most bands of their age would kill to record.
Foals have now become a major force to be reckoned with on the UK music scene, and yet appear reluctant to become 100% mainstream or deviate from their own identity. They embark on an arena tour of the UK in February 2016, and it will be interesting to see how the What Went Down songs translate to wider venues, in addition to their riot-inducing numbers such as “Inhaler”, “Hummer”, “Two Steps Twice”, “Providence” and “Spanish Sahara”. You also have to consider that this band have been together for over 10 years and show no signs of staleness to date, even their occasional cover versions are incredibly strong (their Australian radio show Like A Version cover of Mark Ronson/Tame Impala’s “Daffodils” makes the original pale into comparison with the funk, technique and original synthesiser arrangement displayed).
Thank you Foals, for giving me more satisfaction, joy & pleasure than any man has given me in the last 4 years. I have spent a huge amount of time loving and enjoying your musicianship so, and I don’t see any sign of this fading any time soon.