Back when I interviewed the sullen young lads who make up Foals a couple of months ago, I was taken aback by their introspective nature. This is a band that, before the release of this second album, had exploded into people’s consciousness in 2008 through a mix of tightly structured, playful jaunts. Top hit ‘Cassius’ was joyfully infectious, and had all the hallmarks of a band playing for nothing but fun.
Jump forward two years, and Foals are well and truly a different band altogether, with Total Life Forever being a testament to that. Call it growing up, maturing or just wanting to make music that has a bit more depth to it, those young lads are now young men. From the gloomy underwater image emblazoned onto the front cover, to moments of spine chilling creepiness pulsating throughout the album’s 11 tracks, Foals are pushing themselves into new, unexpected, directions.
Total Life Forever is immediately a richer experience when compared to Antidotes. The songs are swamped in a thick atmosphere, enriched with haunting electronics and a claustrophobic rhythm section. The sudden convulsions and changes of pace that peppered Antidotes are discarded here, with the songs being given a chance to breathe and mutate, almost organically. ‘Black Gold’ hangs on a note of suspense, giving the impression of a grub bursting out of its cocoon as a glorious butterfly.
It’s this suspense that drives the majority of Total Life Forever, and its catalyst is Yannis Philippakis’ vocals. On Antidotes he spent most of his time yelping nonsensical lyrics that were hard to relate to in any emotional way. Here, he’s taken an incredible step forward as a songwriter and singer. His voice is laden with emotion, and he adapts it masterfully to squeeze every last ounce of sentiment out of his words. ‘After Glow’ sees him growing increasingly agitated, his voice cracking every time he repeats the words “because you are better than whatever came before,” and you can just feel him being torn apart by these dark thoughts.
The centrepiece of Total Life Forever is ‘Spanish Sahara’, a phenomenally intricate composition that wraps up all that Foals have evolved into over the recording process of this album. Philippakis’ vocals are tender and delicate, settling over the song’s chilling mood like a damp morning fog. When that fog lifts, it’s with jaw-dropping power. Guitars rise out of the gloom, the bassline quickens like a palpitating heart and Phillipakis’ voice just sears through it all, unrestrained and full of emotion. Without a doubt, it’s a simply stunning piece of work.
There are glimmers of the old Foals. ‘This Orient’ and its joyful vocal melody, is a reminder of what the band can do when they delve into their old personas. Its only issue is the jarring placement it has next to the sombre ‘Spanish Sahara’, which effectively gives the mood of the album a sharp, awkward turn. There are also the almost to be expected debts paid to the likes of Radiohead – ‘Fogue’ acts as a brief divide between the two halves of the album, and is full of the electronic wrangling that made Kid A and Amnesiac the revolutionary records that they were.
Total Life Forever has seen Foals truly come into their own. Like all the best albums its benefits are reaped in repeated plays, in paying attention to the tiny details, and letting the whole thing wash over you. You’d be foolish to write this effort off as an attempt to stand shoulder to shoulder with the majority of UK bands that wallow in a pit of poetic depravity. Foals are standing above them all.