Foals, a precocious art-punk quintet from Oxford, England, is more of a curiosity on paper than in practice. Hype purveyors have been aggressively playing up their technical oddities to bolster the “it band” chatter. The talking points include the band’s fidgety, math-rock rhythms, complete absence of chords and, in their stead, jabbing guitar pellets, intended to aurally resemble a swarm of insects. Likened to a concoction of Battles and the Futureheads, with a splash of Afro-pop, Foals arrive as certifiably avant-garde. But, once explored, they really don’t seem so alien to the pop world. The contents of their debut Antidotes reveals a less exotic dynamic: dark, athletic, but conventional-sounding Brit-rock that’s just been packaged more meticulously than the output of fellow genre-travelers. On the whole, Antidotes shares the upscale, kinetic flair of Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm, only with added labor.
What elevates Foals’ work is this willingness in applying art-house means to achieve a dance-party fever. On Antidotes, high-brow technique yields middle-brow familiarity. Guitarists Yannis Philippakis (also the lead singer) and Jimmy Smith only play their instruments above the 12th fret. But, with them, they forge melodies as lithe and crisp as the Rapture’s. Drummer Jack Bevan and bassist Walter Gervers do import math-rock. But their rhythms aren’t so conceptually over-thought as to distract from creating fleet propulsion. The best of Antidotes is tightly coiled and sweaty, composed of small sounds that interlock in a precise, spirited dance.
For a young band, Foals practice impressive control in the shape and texture of their music. Originally, indie untouchable Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio was to produce Antidotes. Had this happened, it would have seemed the king-making touch that solidified Foals’ stature. They declined this enviable tutelage and scrapped Sitek’s version because of its expansive sonics (i.e. excessive reverb). They then re-cut the album with a focus on tightness and minimalism.
This approach brings infectious returns on the compressed, speedy funk of “The French Open” and the needly twitch of lead single “Cassius”. Both songs have a clustered and compact feel. But each stays light enough on its feet to keep the energy free-flowing. On “Two Steps, Twice”, machine-precise drums and sharp, satellite guitars jab icily, until the final stretch, when Philippakis’ chanty vocals rev up and turn matters more romping. For all their technical wizardry, Foals prefer music in a robustly raucous state.
Foals’ sonics dominate the senses. But they alone don’t make an open-and-shut case for Antidotes. The brittle spider webs of sound find a compelling counterpoint in Philippakis’ impressionistic, often eerie lyrics. With music so shifty, he wisely shuns narratives and instead stresses mood and imagery. On the hazy flight of “Red Sock Pugie”, a battle cry of “Oh hell no” evokes a defiant tone where ambiguity could’ve been easily settled for. “Electric Bloom” is a much murkier foray, with Philippakis moodily speaking of “butcher birds” and “dying kings”. To close it out, he unsettlingly repeats, “It’s just another hospital” – a seemingly innocuous phrase that morphs into anything but that. The restrained “Big Big Love (Fig 2)” delivers similar misdirection. Its overstated title and sweetly glowing flow belie the nightmarish visions that consume Foals’ leadman: “See how these skulls we build / see how these towers we fill / crash down fury red / the cracks in our hearts and heads”. Philippakis sings in clipped bursts, which can obscure the disquiet and menace that lurk within his thoughts. But Antidotes is dark. Strangely dark and pleasingly dancey.
As their music shows, Foals are obsessed craftsmen. They have a passion for exactitude, for technical minutiae, and for songs that can be deconstructed into myriad distinct sounds. They demand a sort of scientific perfection from their creations. What separates them from other heady and scrupulous pop acts is that their intricate rigor begets a fairly uncomplicated appeal. Foals labor so that listeners, who can easily delight in all the momentum and crispness, don’t have to. Antidotes might be a touch weird, enough to earn the badge of “musician’s music”, and its cryptic lyricism isn’t typical of a romp. But when Foals’ rhythms bristle and their guitars go colorfully spastic, the art house and dance house become one and the same.