For those living in Europe, the new Foals album “Total Life Forever” has been out for at least a month now. On U.S. shores, it arrived last week with surprisingly little attention paid to it. This after Foals built up a small storm of hype before the release of their 2008 debut album “Antidotes” and didn’t quite make good on the initial promise their couple singles seemed to display. When they did get it right, they did so with sheer energy and math rock-infused guitar work, punching up more hooks than you knew what to do with. Songs like “Mathletics”, “Balloons” and “Hummer” all hit as hard as they needed to and got people’s attention, but as with so many bands these days, that attention was quickly diverted. As suddenly as they had appeared, Foals again disappeared.
Though it should be, “Total Life Forever” is not the kick in the crotch that Foals so richly deserve. In this metaphor, “kick in the crotch” is intended to imply a good thing, insomuch that your full and undivided attention is given to anyone who does so (despite the pain it might cause). The root cause of this apparent lack of hype surrounding Foals these days might have something to do with the adjustment they’ve made to their sound compared to two years ago. Whether or not the public’s own tastes have changed (in two years? probably.) is up for debate as well. The highly energetic, almost danceable approach that the band took on their first album, complete with vocals that were more yelps than actual singing, have been all but eliminated on “Total Life Forever”. Instead of that, the record has primarily mid-tempo, occasionally spacey songs with tuneful singing. It’s a legitimate step forwards for a band that initially came off as fun and simplistic rather than smart and complicated. To put it another way, Foals have come a long way in two years to prove that they’re able-bodied and up to the challenge of holding down a long and hopefully lucrative career making music.
You notice things are different right from the very start of the album’s opening track “Blue Blood”. The tempo is slower than the quick speed punches that peppered the band’s debut, and frontman Yannis Philippakis proves he can do more with a vocal track than just shout random phrases. By the time the song crosses the 5 minute mark there’s an even fuller sense of surprise given that much of the first album featured songs that rarely ventured longer than 4 minutes. In fact, nearly half of the 11 songs on “Total Life Forever” actually make it beyond 5 minutes, and 3 of those songs even go 6 minutes or longer. Despite these surprisingly exorbitant track lengths, very little of the album feels stretched or boring. Plus, there’s a fair share of songs that maintain a normal length, and many of them could function as singles. “The Orient” and “Miami” are already two tracks that have been released as individual singles in Europe, but so has the brilliant “Spanish Sahara”, the longest song on the album which clocks in at around 7 minutes long. In all, these songs have a much looser and relaxed feel compared to the almost vacuum-packed tightness that dominated their earlier stuff. Whereas the “Antidotes” material attempted to ensure that not a second of music was wasted, by allowing the new songs to breathe a little bit more, we get a new side of the band and everything feels much more organic and natural. There are moments, in particular on the second half of the record, where some of the songs get a little too spaced out or lack a wholly compelling hook. If you are looking for hooks though, there are plenty to be found, though none grab you quite as firmly as they did on the last album. Considering the trade-off is a more mature album with legitimate singing and a strong emotional core, the end justifies the means.
Without a doubt, Foals could have made another energized math rock record in their sleep. It probably would have been enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable, similar to how their debut “Antidotes” failed to keep the spotlight focused on the band for more than a few months after its release. “Total Life Forever”, by contrast, is the smart move they needed to make to survive. Of course that’s likely to turn off fans of that first album who might be upset by the more languid pacing and decreased use of the staccato guitars that math rock is typically defined by. Hopefully you stick with Foals though, because the new record is the best thing they’ve done to date. It’s just a shame this album isn’t getting more attention, at least from what I’ve seen and heard these last couple months. While it doesn’t quite rank among the absolute best things 2010 has had to offer so far, it’s definitely close. Where Foals will head next with their sound is anybody’s guess, but for the moment they’re right where they need to be.