It is 11 p.m. on December 31, 2013, and I’m driving to a friend’s house for a last minute new year’s eve party. Foals’ Holy Fire blares from my speakers. I cautiously navigate my way through the neighborhood, which, for whatever reason, is completely void of light, save for the dim, artificial glow of forgotten Christmas decorations that still litter front lawns, sadly deflated and disturbingly off-kilter. It is an unusually frigid Texas winter, and the heater in my car doesn’t work; Soon the cold catches up to me, creeps underneath my skin and nestles into my bloodstream like a tick. I feel as if I’m driving through an abyss, lost in a vacuum, completely isolated from the world.
It was at some point during this drive, completely alone, shivering, blindly weaving through the dark, where I remember hearing Foals’ music in a way I believe music was meant to be heard – actively, purely, vividly unfiltered and unaffected by outside interaction or stimuli. It was one of those rare moments in my life where I directly and consciously interacted with it, allowing it to envelop me as I associated it with my own thoughts and feelings, a soundtrack playing on loop as I thought about life, forever running back and forth between grief and high delight as I did so. I arrive at my destination safe and sound, my heart a little heavier than before.
There has always been something precious within Foals’ music that has elicited this sort of response within me – embedded in their narratives are images of purity and innocence presented as distant, yet possible finalities in painfully torturous worlds based on our own, finalities simultaneously yearned for and held onto so tightly until your knuckles turn white. Their melodies began from complex, trance-like math rock and have since filled out and evolved into their own unique, vitriolic, emotional genre – instrumentals sharp and serrated like knives cutting and thrashing at the air, making just enough space for frontman Yannis Philippakis’s personal, introspective lyrics, detailed with poetic flourishes and vulnerability that has constantly contrasted his explosive stage presence that included him climbing ledges and jumping into screaming crowds. It was not only Philippakis that brought energy, however – Jimmy Smith’s serrated guitar and Jack Bevan’s focused percussion melded with Walter Gervers’s brooding bass and Edwin Congreave’s synth to the point it was one fluid body on stage, a scuffed machine firing on all pistons, duct tape plastered over the fissures.
Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, in fact, is the first album where that energy was actively threatened – Gervers left the band shortly after What Went Down to pursue other projects, leaving in his wake a cavity more than a decade deep. It would never be quite the same sound as before, but now, without a bassist, or a producer for that matter, they were free to experiment to their heart’s content, to achieve the “undiluted” sound they were after.
Thankfully, most of what made Foals so unique is still very much present in ENSWBL – for instance, despite founding the band without the intention to sing at all, Philippakis still, to this day, sings with as much of a dire, desperate need than he did ten years ago. He is a plaintive, apologetic voice in the perfectly and beautifully paced ballad “Exits,” explaining to a loved one though the chilling, fervid new wave synth that “I’m so sorry/ To have kept you waiting ‘round/ I wish I could’ve come up/ Could’ve shouted out loud.” He foams at the mouth after a period of hazy croons in “Syrups,” asking restlessly “won’t you find a way from me somehow?” though the conflagration of guitar after realizing the inevitability of the world around him. He is the omnipotent DJ in the pulsating, strobe infused illegal disco of “In Degrees,” sweaty and somber, singing of a slow, painful separation from someone you once loved. He is also a teary eyed, prophetic shout into the void in “Sunday,” perhaps one of the most tonally heavy and beautiful tracks in the album, commenting on the fleeting nature of youth in betwixt dazzling, euphoric instrumentals.
Foals have always maintained a visceral connection with nature throughout their entire discography – Holy Fire had flowers, vast golden oceans, time spent above the clouds and in lush forests, What Went Down housed snarling lions, looming mountains, shards of thunder. And, of course, Total Life Forever is home to the infamous Spanish Sahara, an internalized sanctuary to escape from the world. ENSWBL instead expresses this correlation in far darker connotations. Black horses appear in deserts with riders possessing dark, prophetic messages, blackened rain pours down on peeling wet bricks, starless nights hang overhead abandoned cities on fire. Foxes scamper and multiply, weave in and out between ancient, crumbling Victorian arches while the sea reaches up and pulls the sky down with it. Dystopian opener “Moonlight” features bird calls only for them to be silenced in “Exits,” while those same flowers from my personal favorite “Bad Habit,” a once coveted motif throughout their discography, now savagely grow upside down in underground bunkers.
Having said all that, the main difference between Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost and their previous albums is that it is now anger and frustration that is presented at the forefront rather than pure vulnerability like it was before, perhaps due to the fact that, for the first time, their music heavily deals with more immediate, frightening external realities. The narratives deal with and relate to the current political climate, specifically in the U.S. and the U.K., current social issues extending out to the rest of the world, as well as a purely emotional human response to both. In an interview, Philippakis mentioned that this album simply does not exist in any other time period but now, where corruption quite literally “trumps” purity, artificial intelligence runs rampant, and truth and empathy begin to look like rare commodities. It is as if there is no time for vulnerability anymore – instead we have been kicked into survival mode, placing thought over feeling, forced to pick up the pieces our ancestors left behind, “the blind leading the blind.” The inner layer of softness that had always been present in their narratives has been pushed deeper down, forcibly suppressed and silenced, and as a result, their music has become all the more volatile.
No moment more effectively portrays the erasure of empathy as well as the near parasitic nature of constant industrialization and overstimulating technology more than the incessant mechanical whirring that infects the vocals towards the end of the melancholic closer “I’m Done With the World (And It’s Done With Me),” painting a frighteningly vivid image of an incredibly possible future, one where everything, even love and passion, is drawn out to excess, done cheaply, synthetically. Philippakis, accompanied by the delicate fragments of piano that have somehow survived the metallic mutilation, looks out into the overgrown garden where his future daughter sleeps, unbeknownst to the fox that died on the grass days before, oblivious to the horrors that lie just beyond the gates. We are left with an essence of crazed uncertainty; “All I want to do is get up and leave,” Philippakis laments, but as the piano dissolves into the darkness, we get the image of man transfixed in the center of his garden, unsure of where he would go were he given the chance to do so.
Of course, this is only part one, and while I have already decided that I would treat these albums as separate entities, I am curious to see how they will intersect, more so how it will evolve into something even heavier, as Philippakis and Smith have mentioned.
photo by Alex Knowles