Looking Back At…Total Life Forever by Foals

Written by Andrew Barr (@weeandreww)

One of the most tired clichés in modern music is the dreaded “second album syndrome” which, in non-music writer speak, is the idea that a band’s second album is perhaps the most difficult of their career. Especially after a well-received debut, a band can find themselves at a crossroads; either repeat what made their first record so enjoyable and show themselves as something of a one-trick pony or take a risk and establish a new sound, which has the potential to backfire massively.

After releasing their debut LP Antidotes in 2008, a record which was lauded from almost all angles due to its refreshingly fun and dance-y sound, Foals found themselves at this exact crossroads. However, rather than following either of these lanes religiously Foals did what they have done so frequently in their career since; carved out a new path and made a rousing success from it.

This path was carved out with the Oxford five-piece’s endlessly enjoyable sophomore effort Total Life Forever, released in May 2010, which is celebrating its 7th birthday in 2017. Before the full record was even released, it was clear that Foals were not repeating the fidgety math-rock sound that dominated Antidotes.

The group bravely released the near 7-minute epic Spanish Sahara as the record’s first single. It is a testament to Foals’ unbelievably consistent 4 album discography that Spanish Sahara doesn’t stand head and shoulders above every other song Yannis Philippikas has ever written. There is a strong argument to be made for Spanish Sahara as their best track yet, but certainly not by a landslide.

Stepping back from rankings for a minute, it’s a track which seriously deserves the plaudits it gets. 7 years on, it remains one of those songs that when it begins to play, it forces the listener to stop what they’re doing and appreciate its sheer beauty. The track opens with a single guitar line playing over sampled wave sounds, and builds up to a triumphant bridge with Philippakis telling the listener to “forget the horror here/leave it all down here”.

Probably the main factor that differentiates Spanish Sahara from almost every track on Antidotes is its musical complexity – and it’s a complexity that is matched on almost every track on Total Life Forever, with Foals showing themselves as students of Oxford forefathers Radiohead as many tracks eschew a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure.

Opener Blue Blood is another track which opens with restraint with Philippakis singing of forlorn longing, which seems to be both for his home (which could either be referring to England which he missed on the Antidotes tour, or Greece where Philippakis was raised and which seems to feature prominently in his lyrics). The track soon throws off its shackles as Walter Gervers provides a funky bassline which allows it to develop into a bombastic chorus and bridge which shows Foals haven’t abandoned the dance aspect which made Antidotes so enjoyable.

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Second track Miami is perhaps the poppiest track on the album, and is undoubtedly the simplest track, and, truth be told, it can come off a bit repetitive so is probably the track that has aged the worst in the 7 years since the record’s release. As a pop song however, the track is enjoyable, which becomes one of the record’s major strengths – it works on so many levels.

Total Life Forever can be microanalysed lyrically and musically – and it’s undeniably brilliant – Foals are far more musically expansive than on Antidotes are unbelievably good at their instruments. Lyrically, Philippakis shows a massive improvement from the abstract, sometimes redundant lyrics of Foals’ debut with some of his most emotive lyrics yet. But it’s also possible for listeners to enjoy Total Life Forever as an upbeat, summery pop record, and the band deserve massive credit for this, as very few albums can be enjoyed on as many different levels of this.

Black Gold serves as one of the best examples of Philippakis’ developing and maturing lyricism. The track opens with the mention of an ocean, a recurring motif on this record which is so prominent that the album’s artwork sees the band’s 5 members underwater. This track builds tension musically and lyrically, using almost dystopian lyrics à la “the future is not what it used to be” before it builds to a crescendo of swirling guitars carried by a Jack Bevan drum beat.

Following Black Gold comes the record’s masterful centrepiece, the aforementioned Spanish Sahara, which understandably dominates the record, however there is not an obvious lull in quality in the tracks that follow. This Orient is perhaps the most feel-good track that the Oxford five-piece have ever committed to tape – but manages this without comprising the musical complexity that surges through the record. This Orient is one of the tracks which helps establish Total Life Forever as a viable sound of the summer album, as it is an irresistible track which seems almost impossible not to sing along to.

Elsewhere on the record however, Philippakis’ vocal performance inspires reactions of awe rather than singalongs. After Glow is perhaps the most sentimental track on the record, and features Philippakis’ most emotive vocals, almost screaming “you were better than whatever came before/ without you here and my heart broken to the core” before the track explodes into the record’s heaviest instrumental, with both the vocal and the instrumental foreshadowing the heavier material Foals have released since Total Life Forever, with visceral tracks such as Inhaler and What Went Down.

While Philippakis may be the ringleader in the band, he is far from the only talent in Foals’ ranks. There is a case to be made for Jack Bevan as one of the best drummers in music today and Alabaster’s crashing drum sound lets Bevan take centre stage – which he accepts with glee, and almost carries the track.

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Total Life Forever’s closing two tracks ensure the record doesn’t limp to a finish. The echo-drenched vocals of 2 Trees sound almost heavenly above the record’s most atmospheric instrumental before a blissful outro. Closer What Remains is perhaps the album’s darkest track, with Philippakis declaring “I’ve been to the darkest place I know/ you my dear shouldn’t fear what lies below / it’s just bones” . This track feels undeniably epic, which provides the record with a sense of finality as Philippakis eerily repeats the word “bones” in Total Life Forever’s closing act.

7 years after its release, Total Life Forever has acquired something of a weird legacy in Foals’ discography. It wasn’t as commercially successful as Holy Fire or What Went Down, and is not as accessible as Antidotes, meaning it’s tracks often struggle for airplay in the Oxford band’s esteemed live shows. However, it remains a treat for any dedicated Foals fans who will go back and listen to the record, as it sounds just as good 7 years after its release.

Who knows, with tracks as timeless as Spanish Sahara, it may sound just as good forever.


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