I meant to review British math-rockers Foals’ first album a few months back, but what with one thing and another, haven’t had chance to get round to it. Having seen them live when I spent three excellent and largely rain-free days reviewing Latitude Festival this summer, however, I wanted to say at least something about them. And that’s pretty much that, with only a couple of months left before 2008 draws to a close, the 11 tracks on Antidotes will almost certainly make up the best debut British music release of the year.
I first came across Foals with the initially inauspicious release of their debut single, ‘Hummer’, which went on to gather a bit of attention when it was later used to promote the second series of Channel 4’s Skins. Since then they’ve played numerous festivals this summer, the pulsating bass and spiky guitars of tunes like ‘Cassius’ have become unlikely club dancefloor hits, and the band have had a fight with tame anarchist and Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten at a gig in Spain. A hectic year, then, with bookings for major festivals across Europe being testament to the strength of Antidotes as an album.
First things first, though – it isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. As lead singer Yannis Phillippakis self-deprecatingly quipped on Buzzcocks earlier this year, ‘we’ve made a record that’s just solid drones for 40 minutes and no songs. It’s funny – all these people have tipped us and it’s absolutely unlistenable.’ But then unlistenable to one person – as my word processing spellchecker happens to offer as a supposed correction – is unmistakable to another, and if Foals have a future an album or two down the line, it’ll be through unique inventiveness and an aesthetic that places as much importance on catchy hooks and danceability as experimentation and artistic integrity.
First track ‘The French Open’ sets out Foals’ stall quickly enough: a brass drone that builds to sparse drums and layered, trebly guitars that are punctuated by Phillippakis’ unusual vocals – sounding as if, on certain tracks, he’s shouting them across to a mic on the other side of a concert hall. Single ‘Balloons’ is a similarly energetic, raucously orchestrated number, ending abruptly in a swarm of electronic bleeping, while ‘Two Steps Twice’ sounds like a Bloc Party and Battles collaborative. Where Foals really come into their own, however, is in the dense, thought-provoking and often eerily suggestive soundscapes of songs like ‘Heavy Water’, its almost flamenco-style guitar rising to carefully arranged horns and soaring synths, and easily the album’s highlight, ‘Electric Bloom’, a brooding and darkly contemporary arrangement that glitters with cryptic lyrics and its pulsing, addictive bass line.
If there is a criticism of Antidotes as a debut album, it's the repetitious core that lies at the heart of many of its songs: the trebly, spidery guitars do eventually tire, and the fug of depression that dominates the album’s tone, while unusual and admirably imaginative in execution, is already too much well before the wailing close of last track ‘Tron’. But on the whole, Antidotes certainly delivers a refreshing and intelligent alternative to the facile indie-pop of recent bands like The Kooks and the Hoosiers, and for that, Foals deserve the recognition and relative hype that has recently surrounded them. If they can expand their emotional range and already impressive sound, they’ll be onto a real winner.
For those of you reading this who're Sheffielders, I'm assured that Matter 8 has been published and is ready for launch: the annual showcase of new writing from Sheffield Hallam's MA Writing course.
Before I joined the MA, I'd quite often spot copies of the magazine - always beautifully designed and perfect-bound - in bookshops in and around Sheffield, and having enjoyed reading the diverse range of talent on display in each of them, it's been a real pleasure this year to have been involved in editing the publication's poetry.
As well as poems by MA students including myself, then, the issue contains new work by established guest contributors and an excerpt from the late E.A. Markham's memoirs.
Matter will be launched next Wedneday, 15th October @ Waterstones, Orchard Square, Sheffield, and it would be great to see as many people as possible there (it's a big sort of shop so space shouldn't be an issue). It will be followed by the launch of the Best Of MA Writing 2008, a selection of students' work by the tutors themselves, with details to follow.
Just a snippet of news in that I've another review in the TLS this week, following on from last week's 'In Brief' piece on Stephanie Norgate's Hidden River; this week's a more substantial review, covering both Moniza Alvi's Split World, Poems 1990-2005, and her latest PBS Choice collection, Europa. Do check it out if you can.