Wednesday, September 29th, 2010
Total Life Forever
Foals and Esben & The Witch at Lee’s Palace in Toronto
Frank YangI’m not going to suggest that there were stars – or planets, as the case may be – in alignment this week over Toronto but it did strike me as interesting that in the span of 72 hours, there’d be no less than four recent Mercury Prize nominees – and two winners – in town to play shows, three of them on Monday night alone. So while fellow 2010 shortlisters Villagers were at The Drake and 2007 champs Klaxons were at the Mod Club, Oxford’s Foals were at Lee’s Palace in support of their shortlisted new record, Total Life Forever (tonight’s xx show at Massey was number four, if you were wondering). And while I’m sure all the other artists made (or will make) solid cases for themselves as the cream of the current British and Irish musical crops, I’m pretty sure none of them managed to get quite as… angry, as Foals did. But more on that in a bit.
First were supporting act and subject of some modest buzz themselves, Brighton’s Esben & The Witch, who made people take notice when it was announced they’d signed to Matador for the release of their debut album next year. And if Matador was looking to up the interesting/odd quotient of their roster, then Esben certainly fit the bill. The lazy comparison – which I’m obviously not above – would be a more primal and primitive Portishead, and not just because of the gender makeup of the trio. By whatever instrumental means necessary – including all three beating the tar out of a single floor tom simultaneously – they focused on creating an unsettling and foreboding atmosphere over which Rachel Davies’ vocals – sometimes like a ghost, other times like a banshee – could ride upon. The songcraft wasn’t as sophisticated as I’d have liked or even as the recordings I’ve heard, but it was evident that it was intensity and not refinement that they were interested in conveying in performance. I’d have preferred a better balance of the two, but will wait to hear the record before firming up any opinions.
I’ve already admitted to being late to the Foals party, but even though it took me until Total Life Forever to appreciate the band, I’d always heard and believed that they put on an impressive live show. And their punchy, dancey math-punk is tailor-made for a great show – powered by a taut, ultra-tight rhythm section and steered by the dueling, palm-muted guitar symphonies of Yannis Philippakis and Jimmy Smith, they’re all about escalation and after about an hour or so of steadily building musical momentum – just about a set length, coincidentally – they’d be ready to explode and send everyone home exhausted and satisfied. I’ve no doubt that that was and is the Foals game plan, when all goes well. On Monday night, Toronto got to see what it’s like when things don’t go according to plan, and it’s actually better.
Playing in front of a completely sold-out house, things got off to a great start with the title track off Total Life Forever – the set was front-loaded with newer material – and the band playing so tightly, it was as though they were tied together by some invisible wire that kept them in perfect synchonicity but also allowed spontaneous outbursts of chaos with a swift, sudden tug. About mid way through, however, it became clear that Smith was having issues with his gear and the rest of band found themselves jamming on extended intros and instrumental passages as he and the guitar tech tried to sort it out. It seemed, from the audience’s point of view at least, that they had things sorted a few times but the look on Smith’s face to side stage made it clear that no matter what guitars, amps or cables they swapped out, things weren’t getting fixed. And while the equipment woes were technically all Smith’s, watching Philippakis while all this was going on was far more interesting.
Though on the surface he seemed to take it all stoically, it became clear that he was getting angrier and more on the edge of violence as things went off-script and was channelling said anger through his guitar; never missing a beat or a note but absolutely raging while remaining stony-faced. Fittingly, as the set progressed and the spikier Antidotes material surfaced, he began acting out; knocking over mics and stands, pounding the hell out of his floor tom, taking advantage of his wireless guitar lead to descend into the audience, climb onto the back bar, set his mic up and play from the far front corner of the room and generally express his frustration in every way he could while keeping the show going – they even came back for their encore – and not completely flipping out and destroying everything. The intensity was not lost on the crowd, who fed on it and reflected it right back at the band and helped ensure that despite the obstacles, the night was a triumph. Though if anyone after the show saw a bonfire in back of Lee’s consisting of a couple of sweet Gibson guitars and guitar amp heads… those might have been Foals’.
Photos: Foals, Esben & The Witch @ Lee’s Palace – September 27, 2010
MP3: Foals – “Spanish Sahara”
MP3: Foals – “Balloons”
Video: Foals – “2 Trees”
Video: Foals – “Miami”
Video: Foals – “Spanish Sahara”
Video: Foals – “This Orient”
Video: Foals – “Cassius”
Video: Foals – “Balloons”
Video: Foals – “Hummer”
Video: Foals – “Mathletics”
Video: Esben & The Witch – “Marching Song”
MySpace: Esben & The Witch
The Joy Formidable have released a video for the lead single from their debut album The Big Roar, due early next year. They’ll be at the Horseshoe on November 3.
Video: Peggy Sue – “Watchman”
Video: JJ72 – “October Swimmer”