LIVE REVIEW: FOALS, ALEXANDRA PALACE
Friday 28th February 2014 | James
2013 undoubtedly belonged to Foals - a number two album Holy Fire and its subsequent Mercury Prize nomination, a mainstream radio hit in 'My Number', and a summer when they were seemingly inescapable on the festival circuit. These gigs at London's Alexandra Palace had the feel of a well-deserved victory lap after a breakout year, and they put together an undeniably impressive set; but despite what the elaborate light show and lasers may suggest, much of their sound seems slightly out of place in venues such as this - as does their relative lack of mainstream hits. It's an odd and arguably unfair slight on a band coming out of such a defining year, and don't let it detract from what was an excellent live performance; it just showed their recent crowning as 'Best Live Band In The World(™)' as a little premature.
If that sounds like odd or harsh criticism, then it’s only fair to pay them similarly odd compliments. Through 'Inhaler', 'My Number' 'Providence' and 'Prelude', much of Holy Fire sounds like a "live album"; or perhaps "ready-made live album" is a more suitable description. It’s indie rock with build-ups and drops calculated to send their crowds batshit, and tonight on that basis Foals succeed with flying colours. Drummer Jack Bevan's exhilarating drop in 'Providence' splits the crowds for mosh pits like a hedonistic, clean-shaven Moses, and 2013's Radio 1-resident 'My Number' has the crowds bouncing and singing along like a true indie anthem. Older fan favourites 'Spanish Sahara' and 'Olympic Airways' were met with similar feverish adoration - with the former lowering the 7000-strong crowd down to floor before leaping back up at the song's soaring climax.
However, as much as has been made about Foal's transition from indie-middleweights to arena rock heavyweights, there is something about the bands traditionally intricate sound that doesn't quite match up to arenas such as this. While you could argue the crowd's feverish reaction to every note, chorus and rhythm says otherwise, their muted performance at last summer's Reading Festival, a third from headliner slot in which they never quite won their crowd over with a similar set, backs up this hypothesis. It may seem a strange or harsh criticism, but in the exact same slot the year previously was The Vaccines; who while are a significantly inferior band played a set with both the sound and radio hits to inspire and engage their crowd in a way Foals failed to do so a year later. It is this failure to capture a broader festival crowd which highlights this criticism - that as yet Foals still fall somewhat short of true heavyweights in alternative rock.
The band, and thus the set, seemed at their formidable strongest when they abandoned their traditional spindly, high-fretting precision for more spaced out, grungier riffs - with the bombastic, grunge-groove of 'Inhaler' proving the highlight of the set, and the aforementioned 'Providence' a similarly intense shot of adrenaline. Set closer 'Two Steps, Twice' was also a stand-out moment, one that highlighted both the band's control of their audience (even more impressive given the limited communication between them) and drummer Jack Bevan's immense talent, as numerous circle pits formed across the closing chanted refrain.
Special mention should also go to Cage the Elephant here, who were seriously undersold as a major coup for a support act and left a lasting impression with a criminally short set. They played with relentless energy and infectious enthusiasm, and on both the strength of this set and their own standing in the current rock scene, deserved substantially longer than the seven songs they were granted. Curiously, it was also something of a 'greatest hits' performance as only two songs from their recently released third album Melophobia made it into a set dominated by 'Sabertooth Tiger', 'Shake Me Down' and 'Ain't No Rest For The Wicked'. But based on this short support slot, they'll definitely be a band to look out for on the festival circuit this summer, and an intense live act in their own right.
This probably all sounds overly critical of Foals, who in-spite of their limitations, pulled out a riotous performance that justified the hype and ever-growing reputation they have generated over the last year. They are no doubt ambitious - and based on the strengths of this set and the promise of Holy Fire, there is no reason they can't fulfil that potential with future releases and performances. For now though, it was a suitably impressive gig to conclude a defining year for Foals, even if the prestigious 'Best Live Band In The World' crown doesn't quite fit them just yet.