Debut efforts can be a mixed bag, some are brilliant but unfortunately, the artist/band never again captures the success of that first time. Often bands end up somewhat embarrassed about their first stab at greatness with debuts that seem at best charming juvenilia. Foals debut Antidotes falls in the sweet spot with a first effort that still stuns yet only began to reveal the promise that would be achieved in Foals following albums. What impresses on Antidotes is how mature and singularly focused the album is and how timeless and more substantial it becomes when reconsidered. The album successfully sets the stage for the ever-growing musical development the band has accomplished and established the standard for the seething emotion that continues to be maintained on their latest album 2015’s What Went Down.
Foals were formed in Oxford, U.K. in 2005. Foals members had all been in a number of bands during their youth and were influenced by disparate sources which included; Minimal Techno, Arthur Russell, Krautrock, and the Talking Heads along with that other monumental band that originated in Oxford, Radiohead. Prior to forming Foals singer/guitarist/ frontman Yannis Philippakis was initially in the band The Edmund Fitzgerald with drummer Jack Bevan. They would link up with guitarist Jimmy Smith, bassist Walter Gervers, prior members of the band Face Meets Grill, along with keyboardist Edwin Congreave. Both Gervers and Smith attended Abingdon School in Oxford, the same school that counts the members of Radiohead as alumni. The members of Foals would all go off to attend college with Smith receiving a degree from Hill University. Eventually, the other members quit their prospective universities to promote the band. They would gain attention wowing labels and fans with their live performances. Foals would release some 7-inch singles prior to entering the studio to record Antidotes. The debut would be recorded over the summer of 2007 in Stay Gold Studios in Brooklyn, NY with Dave Sitek, from the band Radio on TV, and Foals producing the album. The tracks were recorded in an unorthodox manner, drumming in alleyways onto cassette tape recorders and vocals recorded while Philippakis constantly moved around. Additionally, the band would add brass from the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. Sitek and Foals would play with the acoustics while recording the orchestra by not record them playing directly into microphones. The band upon returning to the UK would decide to remix the entire album as they felt the original recording sounded like it was recorded in the Grand Canyon.
Antidotes would be the introduction to Foals signature sound, poly staccato rhythms and guitars tuned high along with the growling menace of Philippakis vocals providing fireworks. The band attained significant notice and commercial success in the UK with a debut at #3 on the UK Album Charts. Lesser success was reached in the international markets where they charted modestly in Japan, France and Holland. In the US Antidotes would make it to #28 in Top Heat Seekers Chart but would not chart on the Billboard 2000. The overall chart results would give the band a toehold in the music industry.
Antidotes would introduce a band that produced music filled with aggressive abstraction and intensity. There was a pervasive feeling of something straining to be unleashed. Unspecified emotion bubbled under the surface barely controlled leading to intrigue and a certain kind of mystique. In addition, it was evident Foals was mastering the marrying of Math Rock ethos, a sound filled distortion and dissonance, with melodies and lyrics and drawing the listener into the panorama of their songs. The lyrics throughout the recording provided glimpses of angst caused by the idea of a world that is full of beauty but overlooked by most individuals due to the repetitive tedium of life. The band seemingly was intent on wanted to “Go Light a fire and watch it explode” in order to change the status quo.
The first track French Open displays an instinctual contrariness, where the listener had to decide if the track is utter madness, as it is sung almost completely in French, or the desire to depart from the unexpected. French Open begins with a swell of horns then becomes more forlorn as it is supported by a Ska like bass thump. The guitar enters generating the Foals trademark sonic, a staccato guitar meshed with an almost hypnotic beat. This combination delivered relentlessness that cannot be ignored. The theme of the track can be read a number of ways; speaking to the frivolity and futility of how we waste our time, likened to a tennis game but also a dislike of games in general. The listener has to be the judge as they encounter a lyric like, “All these wasted games, racquets, gadgets wasted games.” This track harkens to the band Haircut 100.
Cassius again leaves the listener wondering if the band is discussing the Roman Senator, who was the leading instigator in the plot to kill Julius Caesar or Muhammad Ali/Cassius Clay. The theme circles around the idea of an overwhelming desire to win and rule. Examined is the motivation of daydreams and the fear of only coming out second best expressed in the lyric, “Cassius, it’s over! You’re second best!” The sonics are filled with youthful zeal and fervour. I often think of Cassius as the best of Alternative New Wave interpreted for the 21st century or a Devo/Talking Heads mash up.
Red Socks Pugie is a tribal percussion fest. There again is this pugnaciousness that is found beneath the dreaminess of the sonic. There is an intensity that is palpable as this song builds and builds to an explosive climax. The lyrics relay an interior conversation that attempts to come to grips with reality and unconstrained emotions while realizing that we are our own worst enemy. The escapism of “Olympic Airways” is both an attempt to leave the everyday behind and to save a relationship that is spinning away into oblivion. The vacation of the narrative is saddled with the responsibility of saving this doomed romance and fails. The crystalline keyboards, shimmering guitar and insistent rhythm display all the future potential of the band and the track is a showcase for Philippakis vocal abilities.
My favourite track on Antidotes is Electric Bloom which is a sonic departure from the prior songs with its martial percussion and swirling tonal centre. Examined is the never-ending horror show that is man’s lust for power. There is a realization that no matter who is in charge it is another disaster, “We’re not safe of dying kings with plastic knives…it’s just another hospital”. The track proffers the question, how do we keep ending up where we started? Once heard this song will not let you go. Along with this song’s fellow travellers on the album, it becomes apparent that it is not the complexity of the lyrics throughout the album that captures the listener it is how Foals gets to the heart of things.
In keeping with that realization, Balloons offers simple lyrics and an uncomplicated premise. That premise is that so much of what we do, either good or bad, is motivated by the need for love. The track is big-hearted and filled with New Wave angularity. Heavy Water reminds me of a late-career Police track. It is a sleeper of a song that grows on the listener with each pass. There is a juxtapositioning of underlying dreaminess with driving percussion, funky bass and a fantastic horn that really brings the selection together. Two Step, Twice seems like a throwaway track as it sends up old dance instruction records. However, there is a building euphoria that again explodes in a climactic manner. That repeating guitar chord and drum sequence is genius. It is not a complex song lyrically and a read off makes it seems inane but with the accompaniment, it becomes a breathtakingly impressive song. The other ponderable is if any other band could get so much from a chorus of “Ba da ba dada”.
Big, Big Love is a love letter to Krautrock as the song examines the wonder and agony of love. There is anger, fury and ecstasy all expressed along the way. The brilliant decision to go all “Edge” reverb on the guitar is a great choice, and the repetition of the lyrics adds the right amount of impact. Life Swimming gives a taste of what the band will go on to accomplish on Total Life Forever with its fantastic instrumental selection before the big finish. Tron is the apotheosis of Math Rock with its extremely digital and clinical feeling. Philippakis offers a disembodied voice to discuss the essence of what makes us human. A number of other topics are examined, the desire for a better world, the desire to escape and the realization that the centre cannot hold. It is a pretty bitter narrative that is displayed, “if something won’t heal, our children can’t help you out… a waste, a waste.” this amazing musical tapestry winds down to a cacophonic ending. On Antidotes Foals fearlessly examines both our internal and external conflicts never look away from the truth they find. That ability produces something alluring that drew in first-time listeners and still mesmerizes those who encounter Antidotes.
Antidotes put on display a band that always engages and who are totally committed to what they do. Since this record Foals has continued to climb the ladder of fame. 2010 saw the release of Total Life Forever which was nominated for the Mercury Prize. This was followed in 2013 by the magnificent Holy Fire which stuns with songs like Prelude and Inhaler. Their latest 2015 release What Went Down again is an inspired amalgam of intensity and emotion. Foals as performers are jaw-dropping in concert, earning accolades from esteemed musical artists and fervent fans. Foals is a unique and truly gifted group of musicians who look to produce fireworks for many years to come. Antidotes is their first and impressive volley.