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Not since the days of RADIOHEAD has Oxford been rife with exciting new indie outfits, and math-rockers FOALS were soon spearheading the city’s resurgent music scene with their arrival in 2005. Plucked from promising but underachieving local acts such as Youthmovies, Face Meets Grill and The Edmund Fitzgerald, vocalist Andrew Mears, guitarist Jimmy Smith (a Hull University graduate), bassist Walter Gervers and drummer Jack Bevan, swapped academic life for the rock stage. Inspired by TALKING HEADS, the Krautrock movement, and minimalist techno genius, Arthur Russell, but sounding decidedly GANG OF FOUR or early NEW ORDER, the four-piece FOALS kicked off their discography with a prog-like 7”, `Try This On Your Piano’. Intricate instrumentation in the mould of YES.
Unhappy with this direction, Mears exited to re-group with his former bandmates in Youthmovies, leaving the vacancy open for Oxford students: Greek-born vocalist/guitarist Yannis Philippakis (another from The Edmund Fitzgerald) and fledgling keyboard player Edwin Congreave. Inking a deal with Transgressive Records (Sub Pop in America would soon get in on the act), the jerky quintet built up a healthy following; a limited-edition 12” EP, `Foals Live’ (recorded at Liars Club in Nottingham) was distributed among loyal fans.
Subsequent studio cuts of three of the tracks, `Hummer’, `Mathletics’ and Top 40 breakthrough `Balloons’, all made ascending progress chart-wise during 2007, while the buzz surrounding the group took them across the pond to the Big Apple, where TV ON THE RADIO guitarist Dave Sitek worked on their debut album. Bolstered by the UK Top 30 success of the angular but fractured 45, `Cassius’, FOALS’ final mix of ANTIDOTES (2008) {*8}, secured a Top 3 place while been heralded as one of the year’s best albums. Sounding like The MAGIC BAND sharing air space with the aforementioned GANG OF FOUR (and/or the “brassy” PIGBAG), other intense highlights came through `The French Open’, `Red Socks Pugie’, `Olympic Airways’, `Two Steps Twice’ and `Electric Bloom’; the American version added non-hits `Hummer’ and `Mathletics’.
Minus a major hit (and The CURE-like `Miami’ really deserved to be!), sophomore Top 10 set TOTAL LIFE FOREVER (2010) {*6} mellowed out slightly with frenzied funk and dreamy dance patterns introduced to their “new rave” make-up. Dismissing their newfound TEARS FOR FEARS pop fugues (they even covered `Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ for a B-side), good tracks such as `Blue Blood’, `This Orient’, `2 Trees’ et al, could’ve been so much greater.
The mighty Warner Bros subsequently took FOALS under their collective wing for album number three, HOLY FIRE (2013) {*8}; the near UK chart-topper finally fusing their funkier moments with a middle-ground sound and an identity all of its own. Giving a nod to The BLUE NILE or TALK TALK for their spacier tunes like `Milk & Black Spiders’, `Late Night’ and `Moon’, plus A CERTAIN RATIO for the uplifting `My Number’, one can’t help think that `Out Of The Woods’ comes from the shadows of FLEETWOOD MAC’s “Dreams”.
Back from working with producer James Ford, the 80s-meets-Chris Martin-esque Philippakis and Co soared higher than before when WHAT WENT DOWN (2015) {*8} ghosted into the Top 3 (US #58). Embracing funkier, passionate and richer textures, FOALS’ gloomy, rainy-day cues drew hope not despair from even the quietest moments, climactic and airy on memorable title track, plus `Albatross’, `Birch Tree’, `Mountain At My Gates’ and haunting finale `A Knife In The Ocean’.
Absent of original bassist Walter Gervers (who departed amicably a year prior), 2019’s initial instalment of EVERYTHING NOT SAVED WILL BE LOST: PART 1 {*8} was a welcome return for the FOALS after nearly four years in the paddock. The record almost crashed in at No.1 (but for DAVE’s “Psychodrama”); their stylistic sonic zeitgeist resonating with alt-rock acolytes across the board. Whether uptight or upbeat, moody or motorik, songs such as `Exits’ (about impending ecological disaster), `In Degrees’, `Moonlight’, `White Onions’, `On The Luna’, and the sombre JOHN CALE-esque curtain-call, `I’m Done With The World (& It’s Done With Me)’, touched on today’s tsunami-nomic times.
Anticipation was such that EVERYTHING NOT SAVED WILL BE LOST: PART 2 {*8} galloped into the No.1 slot that October; their first ever to achieve this crowning glory. `Black Bull’, `The Runner’ and `Into The Surf’ were all deemed worthy to challenge for a place in the austere singles charts, though it was the apocalyptic 10-minute anchor track, `Neptune’, that transcended the set beyond its global warming threats of impending extinction. While the name of frontman Yannis Philippakis might not yet roll off the proverbial tongue for the anti-indie unitiated, surely his soaring proclamations would ultimately gain the recognition they so rightly deserved.
© MC Strong/MCS Mar2013-Oct2019

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