oals' debut, like many British records, trails clouds of homeland hyperbole, but it's harder than usual to cut through and get a fix on what exactly they do. Reviews have offered afropop, math rock, and techno as reference; the band members themselves cite Gwen Stefani and Steve Reich. Antidotes suggests these are mostly red herrings. Foals are squarely in a more recent and less exotic tradition-- the hi-gloss end of the post-punk revival: Think a more playful Bloc Party, a more measured Futureheads, a less heartfelt Maxïmo Park.
That's not to say they lack their own sound. If some of the UK press have seized on "math rock" as a way to describe the largely 4/4 Foals it's less because they fit the genre and more that their best tracks sound like they were plotted on grid paper: oblique instrumental vectors crossing, rotating and transforming. In concert videos the guitarists face each other, instruments high and tight against their chests, reflecting one another on an invisible y-axis, shutting the audience out. The stances fit the songwriting: Foals are a band who offer their listeners little in the way of graspable emotion or explanation, but sometimes make up for that with momentum and intrigue.
Take "Cassius", for instance: Breathless, contorted ska-pop, built around high, nervy guitar lines and stuttering brass, with Yannis Philippakis' plummy yelping prominent in the mix. Repeat listens make sense of the sound, reveal the excitement in the muddle-- but the content? It might be about Muhammad Ali. It might be about the Roman Senate. You may as well flip a coin, since it doesn't remotely matter which-- you can thrill to "Cassius", you can dance to it, you can admire its construction, but there's something chilly about its aggressive abstraction.
So what? Aren't thrills and admiration enough? On tracks as propulsive as "Cassius" and its fellow single "Balloons" the answer's yes. "Balloons" actually has one of the album's stickier lines-- "We fly balloons on this fuel called love"-- but is still driven by how its syllables dance and swing, not how they connect. Both singles also use the Antibalas horns-- intermittent guests throughout the album-- to excellent effect, enlivening and widening a slightly arid sound. The brass takes Foals into the tense, mournful spaces the English Beat once explored, and they feel at home there.
When the tempo drops, the problems begin. As tracks like "Red Socks Pugie" and "Heavy Water" slow down, the band loses its crispness and instead of weaving around one another the instruments tread on each others toes, with good hooks lost in a murky coagulate. Worse, Philippakis' voice feels more exposed. It's a blunt tool at best, a kind of blank bark: each word given the same pained heft. On the album's longest track, "Big Big Love (Fig. 2)", he's repeats the dramatic line "Oh! Electric shocks! No!" again and again as the band wind down. He's demanding our attention but, without any discernible emotional context, doing nothing to earn it. The effect is excruciating.
These moments of misplaced weight make Antidotes hard to recommend, but there are good ideas and moments all over the record. The delicate "Olympic Airways" makes a wistful virtue of the drones and echoes that bog the band down elsewhere, and even finds a prettier register to Philippakis' vocals. "Two Steps, Twice" and "Tron" aren't as memorable as the singles but share their appealing intensity.
And it's likely Foals know their strengths and potential. They ditched Dave Sitek's original mix of Antidotes for an overuse of reverb, and they left their first buzz-building singles off the record, preferring to look forward. They've also taken pains in interviews to disassociate themselves from the moribund main current of British indie. That's a wise and admirable stance, but it's not showing up in their music quite yet