Man Without Country's Foe is cloaked in both noir-ish ambiguity and a refreshing sense of purpose.
Last year, a trio from Wales called the Joy Formidable broke out in the US thanks in part due to an incredible LP called The Big Roar. This year, a trio from Wales called Man Without Country released Foe. While Foe isn't quite as good as The Big Roar, it's good enough to put them on the same page with the Joy Formidable and hints at certain things for Wales and its music scene. Each release prominently featured an electro-pop influence, with Foe amplifying the influence tenfold. Man Without Country have a strange, dark, and compelling full-length on their hands with Foe, which definitely warrants your attention.
Beginning with the title track, Foe's style is made loud and clear. Traces of revivalism are found in an atmospheric palette similar to the one boasted by bands like Interpol, She Wants Revenge, and The Bravery. Where Man Without Country differs from those bands is that they don't come off as revivalists, they come off as futurists. They're doing some things on Foe that have certainly been done before but they're given a slight twist and end up seeming completely original and unique. "Puppets" is the song where things really start clicking on Foe and the record starts building momentum. There's gigantic chorus sections, moments approaching EDM, and propulsive drumming, yet it all comes in a restrained package which offers a fascinating contrast and keeps the listener invested.
"Clipped Wings" slows the pace slightly but with a more prominent bass-driven piano part driving the chorus along, it's just as explosive. With the final minute, in particular, coming off as equally triumphant and defeated. That balance is where Foe really finds its footing and stands out. Intriguingly, no one has straddled that balance that well since the Joy Formidable did on a few of The Big Roar's most memorable songs. "King Complex" continues that balancing act while also maintaining a peculiar sense of restraint and mystery that helps make both the band and the record so compelling. Really, the only thing they reveal themselves to be lacking in occasionally is lyrics, though they also show flashes of brilliance.
One of the first moments where brilliance occurs is at the start of the slow-burning "Ebb & Flow", which opens with the lines "This is the sound of my lungs giving up when I've sung more than enough. Now I can't sing," providing an unexpectedly powerful moment. As "Ebb & Flow" progresses, constantly transitioning from haunted minimalist verses to haunted expansive choruses. "Iceberg", which follows out, effectively pulls the same trick only the verses gradually crescendo instead of the sudden switch. There's also the re-emergence of the piano in "Iceberg" which lends the song some necessary lightness before the unrelenting "Closet Addicts Anonymous".
On "Closet Addicts Anonymous" Man Without Country delves deeper into darker territory, approaching the realms of the band they share a lot in common with; Cold Cave. Both bands incorporate the same sensibilities, mine the same influences, have explosive choruses, and are similar in style. Really, the restraint exercised by Man Without Country is one of the only aspects where the bands truly differ. "Closet Addicts Anonymous" simultaneously highlights what makes them so similar to Cold Cave and what separates them. It's a fantastic song and was an excellent choice for a lead-off single. A particularly strong highlight on a record full of them. "Migrating City Pigeon" continues the dark atmosphere of "Closet Addicts Anonymous" but isn't quite as strong of a track, despite a beautiful chorus slightly reminiscent of earlier Muse.
Foe ends with the pairing of "Parity" and "Inflammable Heart". "Parity" opens with a drone soundscape recalling Stars of the Lid before a spare and striking piano arrangement accompanies it. For the tracks entire seven and a half minute run-time, it never once explodes into something past that, instead just coasting along in a foreboding fashion. A digital-esque voice gets spliced in after a hushed vocal and the whole things starts to slowly unravel, mirroring an atmosphere of a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape. It's a stunning track that leads into the slow crescendo of "Inflammable Heart" nicely. "Inflammable Heart" itself doesn't approach the striking levels of "Parity" but does reflect some hope in tone helping to restore some of Foe's core contrasting elements. When all is said and done, we're left with one of 2012's most fascinating surprises and have a new band on the radar.