Lately I’ve been listening to Life Is Yours, the latest album by the UK rock act Foals. It’s not an album that would typically find air time on this site. It’s slick and straightforward, a meticulously produced selection of stadium-ready dance rock. It’s a great album for any set of artists ready to pack arenas and sell out festival slots. For Foals, it feels like a disappointment.
Foals as a band are a bit out of place on this site as well. The group has seven albums out now (or maybe eight – one has a “Part 2” which makes counting a little confusing), mostly peddling in 4/4 arrangements of anthemic alternative rock that, well, pack arenas. They were born out of an indie rock scene to which they retain a vague association despite their now giant stature, appearing on tellingly-named Spotify playlists like “Today’s Indie Rock” and “The New Alt.”
But if you’re a reader of this site, chances are you’ve known about Foals for a while, prior to and removed from their current sun-brushing fame. The reason for this is Antidotes, the debut album by Foals that arrived in 2008. When it did, it was lauded and heavily reviewed by music journalists on both sides of the Pond (although mostly the east side), and one of the favored terms used to describe it just happened to be “math rock.”
In terms of strict definitions (if you’re into that kind of thing), Antidotes wasn’t actually a math
rock album, a fact that some reviewers were kind enough to point out. However, it did incorporate a fair number of that genre’s tropes, primarily in the punchy precision of its guitar riffs. On Antidotes, Foals mostly eschewed the garage-rock reverb of many of their late-aught peers, instead constructing multi-part melodies out of interlocking isolated notes which sounded like a slowed-down, less technical take on the guitar tapping that had been a math rock mainstay for a while by that point. More “blippy” than “twinkly,” but still not far off.
Which brings me close to the end of this article’s obligatory prologue. Many reading this are probably waiting for me to mention that Yannis Philippakis and Jack Bevan, the singer/guitarist and drummer in Foals respectively, were prior members of an actual math rock band called The Edmund Fitzgerald, so it makes sense some of that influence would find its way into their new project. Which is a valid and important point, but this article isn’t a retrospective (unless Michael puts it in the “Math Rock Retrospective” section – I’m not sure he’s decided yet), so I’m gonna go ahead and move on.
What’s more interesting than recapping Foals’ (at this point, quite long) career is considering exactly what their legacy is to a genre that, depending on your perspective, they were either adopted by or shoehorned into. That legacy is almost completely bound up in Antidotes. Although Foals did create some math-like songs post-08 (e.g. the fantastically vampy “Blue Blood” that opens their sophomore album), I’d find it hard to believe any of their later full-lengths would have attracted the math rock label on their own.
But Antidotes does belong in the math rock canon. Somewhere. Not in the lofty saddles of genre
purists, sure, but in a place that recognizes the remarkable balancing act that album accomplished bringing semi-mainstream attention to a genre that a lot of indie rock fans maybe/probably hadn’t heard of up to that point. It took a niche style that was presumedly beloved by at least two of its members and fused it with a particular cultural zeitgeist in a way that was fresh and creative, and not at all shitty.
What zeitgeist, exactly? Come with me back to the mid-2000s, when bands like Interpol and Radio 4 and Franz Ferdinand were mining early-80s rock innovations and refashioning them into something that the label-loving music press would eventually dub a “post-punk revival.” Antidotes didn’t fit perfectly into this paradigm either, but it did absorb enough of it to appeal to the same fans. (Fun fact: the founders of Transgressive Records, who put out the records’ original UK release, met at a Bloc Party concert.)
This is where the question of Foals’ legacy becomes most interesting. Barely ten years separates the release of Gang of Four’s Entertainment and Slint’s Spiderland, and somewhere in that intervening decade, the connecting threads between post-punk and math rock became backgrounded to the point of invisibility. Which is somewhat strange, because post-punk’s characteristically stark guitar stabs could easily find a common audience with the hyper-clean staccato playing styles of modern math rock bands. Just looking at how often the term “angular” pops up in describing these two genres makes it pretty clear they have some shared blood.
Sitting at the crossroads between the two is Antidotes. Yannis Philippakis et al.’s not-quite-math rock take on the 2000s take on post-punk took up some novel space, and then got big enough to become that space’s default occupier. Its legacy is providing a relatively fluid transition between those worlds, standing forever as the album you can show your Strokes-loving friend before introducing them to Battles (possibly with a way-stop at The Redneck Manifesto‘s Friendship). One could argue it’s even had a bit of a ripple effect, threading tiny echoes of math rock into the fabric of the indie scene.
The disappointment is that Foals never quite followed this debut’s direction, gradually shedding the math-meets-post-punk sound a little more with each successive album. A disappointment, maybe, but not necessarily a surprise. The DIY underpinnings of Antidotes only ever went as far as its notably ugly cover art; even in their earliest form, Foals’ music was always stadium-sized. They’re clearly now where they’re supposed to be, but it’s still worthwhile to check back on where they were.