Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost: Foals slick up a slice of progressive dance rock

2ab6eag683d21-1There were some nasty looks given to the indiehead floating the idea that the Arctic Monkeys did not hold the title of best British rock band, writing, recording and touring since the end of AM’s commercial clout.

And it bears admittance; I was skeptical at first read 2017, finally getting around to listening—stubbornness is a bitch—and not wanting to admit to resting in either camp. The xx stood front and center with their New Order/Joy Division electronica kick that ranged from rhythmic to exceptionally excruciating. Foals shut my sputter shit real right and quick. Holy Fire alone shot them up the list Antidotes and What Went Down just sold it (sorry, Total Life Forever). Whereas the Arctic Monkeys have Albarn’d themselves by paroding their own inclinations—Tranquility Base Hotel Casino serving as both a natural rhythm and blues progression from AM (perhaps the smoothest stylistic transition of their four)—and showcasing their self-perception as Turner’s left arm to The Last Shadow Puppets’ right, Foals have continued to be Foals. Yannis Philippakis may be the bandleader but this band hasn’t reached the Eddie Vedder-Pearl Jam dynamic, not nearly. To separate lead vocals and guitarist Philippakis from guitarist Jimmy Smith, drummer Jack Bevan and bassist Edwin Congreave is to separate grey from the overcast. And by album number five, that’s not normal. There usually is a separation between the lead man the gang at this point. Some difference in style from the soloist and the chorus. But for Foals, there is none.

And lo the guitars on “Exits” and “White Onions” will make listeners cry—Foals are back in total and still know how to rip cord and charge the metal beasts as they always did. No longer the goal, but still the thread carrying them from Antidotes to Everything Not Saved Part 1, Philipakkis and Smith’s riffwork remains, ever reflecting the dreadful shred of existence that wrought prior records in iron and shines the carbon-fiber case of their post-apocalyptic visions. They even find a new weave on “Syrups” inhabiting a funkier space than ever before.

But surrounding this central piece they have switched from the mechanics to the machines in wholesale manner—synthesizers and keys have always been contributors to their music, but the new long-player employs them at wider and wider berths as melodic leaders for Foals new world vision; ironically, their employment of synths and keys are the most positive part of the record, with Philippakis, Smith and Congreave all writing and programming for the new record and progressing to the forefront by “In Degrees.” Foals, as much by design as by accident, have cycled from garage-sourced Soft Cell successors to post-punking Muse inamoratos to worthy LCD Soundsystem compeers. Not even James Murphy couldn’t contemplate this dance on the razor edge of a collapsing society—he always sells the hope, none moreso than on american dream, that things will improve at the deepest point of despair. Well, Foals ain’t buying that shit, Murphy. “On The Luna” licks on the synthetic organ as the band gambols at the altar for a new-wave “1999.” The old world is burning and they are at once scathing those dastardly baby-boomers and saltating to an inherited avarice.

And when the key recede, its the phones which take their place on “Café D’Athens,” from vibra to xylo to marimbas, written with Tony Allen’s Afrobeat collaborators and polished slick by percussionist Vincent Taeger. The cut caps clean the best section of the record: the mal à l’aise of “Syrups,” the decadence of “On the Luna,” and the despair of “Cafe d’Athens.”

The onward trajectory of the majority of the track-list sets Foals as prime contrarians dismissing the invalidity of linear progress. Obviously, to compare Part 1 to Antidotes belies evident growth and to compare Part 1 to Part 2 belies impossibility—we’ve yet to know if Part 2 takes a step back—but the comparison between Part 1 and Total Life Forever is manifest, hell between Part 1 and What Went Down the only thing that slope has only steepened upwards; Foals have found a sonic trajectory and manipulated it to practical perfection. Brett Shaw works to keep them on message, but for the third record in a row Foals have sharpened their ears to a pin-drop while expanding their instrumental and lyrical vocabulary.

In introducing xylophones into their sound for “Cafe d’Athens,” Foals undertook the first steps in a natural evolution from the straightforwardness of the keyboard. They use them well and would do well to employ them after the fait accompli Part 2 if only to ensure their signature riff-and-key-work refrains from overexposure on future records, especially when they have already mired in anxious, melancholic, miserable moods since, well, forever. Yes, Foals mastered them and moved them from simple alternative garage rock into the hypothetical world of Neo-Progressive rock and, yes, they highlighted viciously depressive images of a depressing future, becoming one of the few successful bands to merge dread with dance-able rock without dribbling.

I tried to make a call to heaven
Phone lines cut back in ’97
Radio silence all the way down

– “Syrups”

But their lyrics remain simple, never quite unraveling elegantly and instead forging dystopic negative with one-track efficiency. Images of human society pushed underground, obsessions of Orwellian privacy, dress-downs of a declining culture, gasping a slow death by degrees, Foals are quick to the draw. And despite keener observations than most, it seems that Foals themselves don’t care if listeners understand them, masking a great deal of vocals with effects and grafting the woe in their words to the psyche of their production rather than the clarity of their discourse. For seven-tenths, this art-rock record rips quick with pointed messages, melodies and progressions—even the slower cuts glide agile—by prioritizing what to sharpen on each track. Their vacillation between above-average and excellent only hiccoughs when the pacing begins to switch back on itself. It’s not that these last three-tenths were written poorly, it’s that they fit poorly. “Surf, Pt. 1” works as an interlude build up, but not when the swarthy, Joshua Tree-esque deep cut “Sunday” attempts the cliffhanger and then “I’m Done With The World” renders it redundant. Foals intended these cuts to ensconce the record, but do so prematurely when it’s only Part 1 of a double-dipping long-player scheme.

Resultant: a downgrading of the record from an absolute recommendation to a conditional recommendation (if only a small condition). If you can swallow this misfire, more power to you because Foals otherwise hit all their neo-prog marks. They might not have the same grandiose flamboyance of classic progressive rock, but they have the same ambition and, like Alt-J, they make up for the encyclopaedia operatica musicality with a cold embrace of audiophile austerity. When Foals sees no warmth in the future, why the fuck would the music? It is testament to Foals’ musicianship to balance between comfort and warmth, dance and dread, art and rock as they do presque the entirety of this LP.

Nonetheless, Foals are in a precarious position now; with Part 1 being such a near-sublime listening experience, it hinges on Part 2 to make this their year. Oh sure, the concept will be nominated for awards, the Grammys will lap this big-concept-by-solid-execution up. But Part 2 will either confirm or change the entire narrative. Now, everything goes in slow motion, Foals have made the alley, and the house is standing watching relishing for the oop.

Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, Part 1
Album Artist: Foals
Producer: Self-Produced with Brett Shaw
Label: Transgressive, Warner Bros.
Genre: Neo-Progressive Rock, Alternative Dance
Tracklist:

  1. Moonlight”
  2. Exits”
  3. White Onions”
  4. In Degrees”
  5. Syrups”
  6. On the Luna”
  7. Cafe d’Athens”
  8. Surf Pt.1”
  9. Sunday”
  10. I’m Done with the World ( & It’s Done with Me)”