Sunday, August 30, 2015

Can also go up: Foals - What Went Down

Experience has taught me that fans of indie music are thick skinned enough not to care what people think of their musical tastes. Indeed, they tend not to be bothered by the use of "indie" to begin with, and certainly no more than they worry about holes in their cardigans (let's get that stereotype out of the way, right there...), or that they should have grown out of "student music" when they ceased being students (yep, that out of my system, too).

Because, what actually defines "indie music"? Is it the misconception that it is made by apparently morose and Vitamin D-deficient guitar bands? Or the more literal definition, that it is made by bands on record labels lacking the financial clout - or dark, satanic corporate overlords - of mainstream record companies?

There is, though, still something perjorative about the term "indie", implying vegetariansim, late night John Peel sessions, and sticky-floored student union gigs by The Wedding Present, from which I'm convinced my hearing is only recovering from now at the age of 47.

The cold hard truth, however, is that "indie" is no less or no more just one of those music biz pigeonholes. After all, Coldplay, New Order, Manic Street Preachers, Oasis, Radiohead, Mumford & Sons, Paul Weller, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury & The Blockheads were all once - and some still - on independent labels, and yet their mainstream commercial success couldn't make them further from indie as a concept.

Picture: Nabil

This leads me to Foals. Who are signed to Warner Brothers. And yet few journalists seem capable of writing about them without using the phrase "indie darlings". Perhaps it's because some members of the quintet have beards (although find any mainstream band the 1970s without facial hair); perhaps it's because they are a guitar band with a bespoke brand of intensity. The Beatles, as I recall, were a guitar band, and when they got into it could be quite intense.

I could go on, but I won't because there is the matter of Foals' new album What Went Down to consider. Following on from the brilliant Holy Fire two years ago, the Oxford band have returned emboldened with an album that strips away any ridiculous sterotyping about Pot Noodle container-strewn bedsits, instead delivering broad, festival-ready guitar rock with an undercurrent of lyrical darkness.

Holy Fire may have been more of a vibey affair, but What Went Down releases the brakes and Foals go for it, with pulsating riffs, stomping drums and tight, infectious grooves that rarely let up. On standouts like Albatross and Night Swimmers, Snake Oil, the title track and Mountain At My Gates (the latter two being the first singles off the album) Foals pile on layers of immensely fruggable intensity, a festival performance even within the stilted atmosphere of a studio recording.

Foals' Yannis Philippakis - picture: La Fabrique/Nabil

Comparable with, but more varied than Editors or Bombay Bicycle Club, Foals have moved themselves closer to the elite of - yes, if I must use it - indie acts. I read somewhere that Talking Heads are amongst their influences, which goes a long way to explain Foals' energy. 

The Heads are, in my view, one of today's most media-neglected 'heritage' bands, and their legacy deserves much better recognition. The sad fact is, once you get branded "art rock" you are instantly regarded as musical smart arses, a little too clever for their own good. And that's the problem with music's insistence and obsession with pigeon-holing. I don't know what your definition of "indie" is, but on the evidence presented by What Went Down, Foals have just entered the big league.

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