Always masters of a deft meshing of disco with post-punk, Oxford, England’s Foals return with their first full-length follow-up to 2008’s intriguingly-artworked Antidotes. Like their previous release, Total Life Forever alternates between keeping it guitar- and keyboard-centric and wandering off into drum-and-bass or strange electronica. Antidotes kept the dance beat pumping, sometimes to a fault, and Total Life Forever follows its throbbing example, for the most part. Fortunately, the band of Brits have developed in the interim a good ear for break-taking, like during the handclap B-section in the title track or the industrial percussion interlude in “Alabaster.”
And in just the way that Total Life Forever doesn’t rest on its rhythmic laurels, the band tends to jut around periodically in their genre-sampling. “This Orient,” though it features a melody that takes me back to my Vertical Horizon fandom days, instrumentally recalls Tokyo artist Shugo Tokumaru. I gotta wonder if this was deliberate, as the song discusses “this Western feeling.” It certainly feels oddly suspended in space and time — it might even be uncomfortably anachronistic.
Likewise, “Black Gold” boasts an almost reggae backbeat, while the intro to “Spanish Sahara” veers toward unprecedented balladeering before the 4/4 thump resumes. What makes “Spanish Sahara” remarkable is a microcosm of Foals as a band: its ultimately simple backbone. The chord changes (as well as the keyboard and guitar tones in which they’re performed) reminds me of that Death Cab For Cutie song “Transatlanticism,” slow and deliberate, but when the composition climaxes, it’s composed of so many layers that it feels immersive. Without sacrificing danceability, Foals demonstrate their skill at building up a castle of sound — towering, multi-level turrets and all.
In this way, the group’s deceptively simplistic compositional ambition, perhaps harkening back to the math-ier days of band leaders Yannis Philippakis and Jack Bevan (both were members of now-defunct The Edmund Fitzgerald), reveals itself intermittently in blinding little bursts. But even nostalgic closer “What Remains,” through its virtuosic drumming and noodling keys, maintains nearly the same tempo and visceral heartbeat as the album as a whole. At its core, Total Life Forever is a good dance record: something you could leave on at a party and not stop moving to until its full 50 minutes have finished. But as much as it tries to run away from that, it isn’t a whole lot else.