Total Life Forever
Simon Jay Catling
, May 7th, 2010 07:18
If early preview 'Spanish Sahara' told us anything, it was that the directly delivered menageries of 'Hummer' and 'Mathletics' were officially a thing of Foals' past. For this they deserve respect; especially when considering that those early singles weren't initially championed by the fashionistas of the NME et al; instead, they were thrust forward by underground beard-scratchers still in thrall to front man Yannis Phillipakis and drummer Jack Bevan's previous project - math-rock curios The Edmund Fitzgerald. When the Skins crowd did come calling, the Oxford five-piece were in the unenviable position of trying to keep a hold of their own vision amidst pressures from both the "give-us-a-hit" impatience of the mainstream and the "give-us-a-seven-four-time-signature" desires of the underground.
But if 2008's Antidotes suffered from those opposing forces - becoming an uneasy combination of jittery guitars and bloated expanse in the process – then the same can't be said of Total Life Forever. In its fifty minutes is the sound of a band who have transcended the baying calls of both camps, while showing a refreshingly open attitude in their quest to evolve – even if the results don't always match up.
Interesting then that Total Life Forever has moved forward by looking back, its creators seemingly coming to the surprising conclusion that Dave Sitek's mix of their debut LP might not have been so bad after all. Things don't quite sound like they were "recorded down the Grand Canyon," but there is a conveyance of more space to move about in, something symptomatic of the album as a whole. Time to reflect has evidently mellowed the minds of Foals; both lyrical themes and musical mood sit delicately between apprehension and wistful contentment, Yannis looking outwards, to escape from past anxieties ("I know a place I can go when I feel low down"), while sounds ebb and flow with a comfort that isn't totally allowed to rest. Gone are the anxious and aimless spasms of 'Cassius'; 'Spanish Sahara's gradually rising tumult of guitar tremor best encapsulates - even among the fresh material - the calmer, more linear direction that the group follow here. Album opener 'Blue Blood' is another that tenderly sets the scene before building upon its foundations; Phillipakis' crooning vocal emerges from the abyss before guitar joins guitar, bass drum percussion spreads to hi-hat and snare, and the track begins its vine-like growth. 'After Glow' offers all the afrobeat bit-shaking sensibilities of 'Two Steps, Twice', but without tripping over itself in haste to reach a climax; instead it's a wonderful ascension into a dense forest of seamlessly intertwining six-string and drum skin rhythms. 'Alabaster', meanwhile, almost knowingly throws a 2008-looking jittery guitar hook under a trampling plethora of low-frequency rumbles, whilst Yannis' vocal crawls over the pair of them. It's these moments that suggest a band at the other end of the hype bottleneck with vision still intact.
However, it remains a shame that past schizophrenic tendencies have been discarded on the way. It is laudable that Foals have refused to fall into line with the wishes of others, but by so bluntly dismissing the work that put them on their trajectory, they've also glossed over one of their true talents: an ability to fit a brain-freezing amount of ideas into three minutes and still come out sounding completely coherent and thrilling. Total Life Forever possesses perhaps a couple of ideas less than Antidotes and takes, on average, another minute longer each to express them. This leaves a slight niggle because, underneath the cinematic sprawl that Foals are now stretching their intricacies to fit, the record as a whole doesn't always move forward. The title-track, for instance, interestingly cavalcades around chanting vocals and melodic climbs and falls, but offers nothing unreadily available elsewhere; and on the occasions when the group do jump from the album's delicate balance, results are varied. 'Miami's' exotic pop feels out of place amidst the otherwise gentle wash, while recent single 'This Orient' offers a relatively conventional slab of indie-guitar that might've been so much more.
Despite these flaws, Total Life Forever shouldn't be regarded as anything less than a step forward for the band. At times they scale truly impressive heights, while always suggesting that there's room for more. You just hope though that in their pursuit of further growth, Foals don't overlook the fruits that they already have; because while it's their stubbornness that's allowed them to outride the hype machine, there's also the danger that it could also prove their eventual downfall.