In my desperation to see Foals I was willing to travel abroad, and so booked tickets to their show at Le Zénith in Paris where the Oxford quintet are performing as part of Festival Les Inrocks, a series of live music nights staged around France in November.
Their latest release Holy Fire has been my album of year, a sonically lush, sun-drenched record combining soulful melody with inventive rhythms using some very primal instrumentation. It’s the kind of album to listen to whilst contemplating life, watching shooting stars at the dead of night or driving back from the beach at twilight. I’m hoping they’ll do a good job of bringing it to life tonight.
Impressive support sets from Everything Everything and Breton leave a tangible sense of anticipation. Just after 9:30 the house lights go down and the crowd responds.
A sudden volley of bright, flashing lights from behind the stage precede guitarist Jimmy Smith’s entrance holding his guitar over his head like a trophy, plucking the opening notes to album opener “Prelude”.
Edwin Congreave, Walter Gervers and Jack Bevin follow on keyboards, bass and drums respectively, adding to the brooding, swaggering instrumental. Frontman Yannis Philippakis appears with his fist raised triumphantly and offers stabs of dirty, distorted guitar to a racy climax.
“Merci beaucoup!” he shouts in his distinct Oxford accent. Next, the angular “Hummer” showcases their early alt rock leanings and keeps the pace up. Jimmy Smith’s caressed, muted notes herald “Olympic Airways”, a beautiful tune and a highlight of the night, followed by the jubilant “My Number”, an infectious blast of danceable indie rock.
In the five years since their debut album Philippakis’ hipster yelps have matured into more a more soulful, seductive call. Tonight he switches from an impassioned howl to the smoothest falsetto finely poised between lethargic and amorous, so soft-edged the words melt into each other. This man can sing, and has the most awesome beard I’ve ever seen.
“Milk and Black Spiders” builds to a euphoric, sparkling climax, propelled by Jack Bevan’s powerful beat. Bevan’s posture behind the kit is reminiscent of someone spinning plates, his spread body doing the work of four drummers. His powerful playing and palpable energy radiates to the rest of the band throughout the night. He is a vastly underrated modern great.
Yannis asks the crowd if they’re ready to “get dirty” before “Providence” and its monster riff. It’s the closest the crowd gets to moshing all night. The mood is then taken down with a blissful performance of “Late Night”. Smith adds extra keyboards and Philippakis performs an even wilder version of the bluesy disorderly guitar solo than that on Holy Fire.
The slinky “Inhaler” and its mammoth chorus is a fitting closer before the encore. Philippakis thanks the crowd and adds how there’s “nowhere else they’d like to finish a tour than Paris”. Aptly, they return with “The French Open”, Philippakis leading the crowd along to the words “Un peu dair sur la terre, dair sur la terre” to the song’s syncopated rhythm and off beat, dissonant notes, like a malfunctioning keytar caught in a shredder.
“Are you f*cking ready Paris?” Philippakis shouts before a 10-minute version of “Two Steps, Twice” from their first album Antidotes. During a bit of crowd surfing he is seemingly swallowed by waves of Parisians before magically striding back on stage. The song builds and builds to an epic math rock face-off, Everything Everything appearing halfway through to hammer on some beefy floor toms.
Looking around the venue, everyone had forgotten themselves. One Latino-looking guy in a singlet was having some sort of spiritual awakening as he busted some elaborate moves. The man directly behind him looked decidedly miffed at having his view blocked.
A night with Foals is the kind of gig where you don’t care how bad your dancing is; the music and the rhythm have control of you and provoke a desire to dance with strangers, uninhibited, or “possessed by the devil” in Philippakis’ words.
Overall the night was a triumph, albeit with a few quibbles. The set could have been longer and only two tracks were played from 2010’s gorgeously ambient Total Life Forever. Additionally, the manic light show was slightly over the top and often swamped the performance. Anytime Bevan knocked up a beat to open a song, wild, random lights seared our eyeballs and often masked what the band was up to.
But the passion and zeal on display tonight was astonishing considering they’ve had such a slog of commitments this year. They do a superb job of recreating the tunes from Holy Fire despite the lack of marimba, bongos, strings and bizarrely – cow and sheep bones for percussion as featured on the album.
Foals have again shown their stadium credentials without compromising their music; a respectable feat. Incidentally, not long after I’d booked tickets to the Paris gig Foals announced a UK tour. Naturally I snapped up a couple of tickets to one of their London dates and am already counting the days.