Oxford rockers Foals are a band that has been well-recognised for their live show prowess in recent years. A shed full of ‘Best Live Act’ wins and nominations have come their way in the past five years from the likes of NME, Q magazine and the Brit Awards for their electric and intensely energetic performances.
But the release of the band’s latest (and fourth) studio album, What Went Down, has seen the rock band enter the brand new, potentially intimidating territory of arena-rock. Prior to this, Foals had typically been a band that played only the largest academy venues and music halls across the country. So when I caught the band on a Saturday night at the massive, 21,000-capacity Manchester Arena, it was a case of unchartered waters for the indie outfit.
There is no doubting the band’s ability to infuse their sets with energy and vigour. As indifferent as if they were playing to 46 pissed-up teenagers in a student union bar in Hull, they roared into life unperturbed by the massive crowd with new track ‘Snake Oil’, before rattling off two old favourites in ‘Olympic Airways’ and ‘My Number’ (the latter of which prompted 20,000 spectators to dance and jump about ecstatically).
Gradually, however, as the set progressed, it started to become apparent that Foals, as adept as they are as musicians, and as big as their sound is, are still finding their feet as an arena-rock outfit.
Frontman Yannis Philippakis’ vocals were on-point throughout the evening, but a large chunk of the middle of their set seemed, well, just a bit uncharacteristically flat. Standout single from the new album, ‘Mountain at My Gates’ was met with universal approval by the gig-goers, but as Foals’ performance continued, even some of their more classic tunes that old fans adore, such as the usually high-octane ‘Red Socks Pugie’ and the atmospheric ‘Spanish Sahara’ were met with an uneasy sense of indifference. Perhaps this can only be put down to the inevitably large numbers of new fans the band have attracted in recent years.
The theory that this mid-set lull was due to the multitude of new fans the band have attracted since the release of their third album, Holy Fire, was arguably confirmed by the unanimously riotous reaction the band received as they launched into the set-closing ‘Inhaler’, for many the song that first attracted them to Foals in 2013. It seems that this song has special powers; regardless of the venue, its sheer ability to incite people to pogo like a nutjob can make even the largest arena seem like a 150-capacity, underground sweatbox.
[‘Inhaler’] can make even the largest arena seem like an underground sweatbox
The band concluded their show with an encore that included ‘What Went Down’ (basically the new version of ‘Inhaler’ for their latest album), and ‘Two Steps, Twice’, the latter seemingly the only nod from a largely newcomer audience to the fact that the band released two albums of good material prior to 2013, as it was danced and sung-along to religiously.
Clearly, Foals have got potential to establish themselves properly as an arena band in the near future; some might say they already have following a sell-out arena tour. They’re being touted as future festival headliners and it’s understandable why. But it seems that they must hone their sound to suit larger audiences a bit more if they’re to reach the zeniths of live performance they established in smaller venues earlier in their career.