The Thoroughbreds of Horseplay

Noted for the dramatically differing styles of their first two records, British ‘math-rockers’ Foals have morphed yet again with their sensational new album Holy Fire. With the record leaning towards a more traditional rock aesthetic, Foals’ trademark rhythmical complexity has been fine-tuned to maturity and their indie-branded past seems a distant memory. Though perhaps some credit should go to Flood and Alan Moulder, the UK record producing giants that worked with the band on their latest release, the five men that stood before us late last Thursday night were a polished and mesmerizing machine. With only a few words from the wild Yannis Philippakis throughout the entire set, the group effortlessly controlled their audience through each swell of perfected dynamics that blended brooding ambiance to strobe-infused heavy rock.

With both Blondfire and Surfer Blood playing before the headline act, it was set to be a late night, but Blondfire kept things short and sweet with their six track set. The brother and sister duo of Bruce and Erica Driscoll were joined by a guest guitarist, and played several songs from their new their album Young Heart, including the lead single “Where the Kids Are” and my new personal favourite of theirs, “Waves”.  A cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” also made an appearance, and though it was nice for everyone to sing along to, no real effort was made to put their own stamp on the classic number. Sultry front woman Erica – the ‘blonde’ in Blondfire I presume – donned her electric guitar for several numbers and sang with an appealing husky edge to her voice.

The band have experienced much success online, and were in fact the first unsigned act to reach the iTunes Alternative chart number one spot. They have since been signed up by Warner Bros. Records. alongside the Florida-based Surfer Blood, who despite being in their mid-20s, look far too young to be so comfortable up on stage, reeling off one well-produced song after the next. Their lead guitarist Thomas Fekete looks about 16 years old but can play the guitar with his teeth for crying out loud.

Surfer Blood has talent, and lead singer John Paul Pitts’ powerful voice filled the venue with ease as they kicked things off with a popular, surf-infused summery number known as “Floating Vibes”. It was immediately obvious that quite a few people in the audience had come specifically to see them. It’s hard to put a finger on what Surfer Blood sound like, but I can see influences from the likes of Weezer, Vampire Weekend and even Buddy Holly creeping in on occasion, though there’s something about this band that seems almost too polished. They sounded great, especially during the early parts of their set on the likes of “Miranda” and “Demon Dance”, but there was no raw performance energy, more like they were going through the motions and making sure they looked cool. Even John Paul’s ‘rebellious’ attempt to come down off the stage and stroll along the front barriers blowing vapour from his e-cigarette into the air seemed slightly contrived. Despite their extremely strong start and quality material, the show had dipped by the time they got around to playing “Slow Six” and “Weird Shapes” from their up-and-coming album Pythons and unfortunately I felt that set dragged on several songs  too long for that of an effective successful support act.

If anybody knows about performance energy, it’s Foals, and they proceeded to make an impact from the moment the house lights blacked out. Entering the stage one by one, layer upon layer of escalating sound was built upon for a sublime extended rendition of Holy Fire’s instrumental “Prelude”. The rising exhilaration of the full-to-capacity Commodore Ballroom reached a climax when the band dropped in the distinctively funky “Inhaler” intro, proceeding to thrash about wildly in a blur of frenzied lighting to Yannis’s impressive roaring vocals.

Though the show largely paid homage to the new album, the band didn’t disappoint in revisiting a number of old hits. Fan favourites like “Electric Bloom” (Antidotes, 2008) and “Blue Blood” (Total Life Forever, 2010) made appearances with fresh twists, though of course the beautifully haunting “Spanish Sahara” stole the show in that respect. Following the untamed crescendo of “Milk and Black Spiders” in which Yannis doused himself with water before spraying the elated audience, the soothingly sorrowful number triggered an instant atmosphere shift. A thousand people stood in awe amidst a wash of blue as Yannis, suddenly composed, seeped emotion from every pore.

The elation soon returned along with a conveyer belt of crowd surfers, and not being one to miss out on the fun, Yannis leapt into the audience along with his guitar twice throughout the night, somehow still managing to play “Red Socks Pugie” and “Providence” atop a mass of frenzied bodies. The celebrated front man exudes charisma; spinning 360s and whipping his curly mop of hair about, even climbing atop a 15-foot speaker system wielding drumsticks in the air. In fact, the whole band gives off a sucker punch of energy, and it almost seems a shame that captivating drummer Jack Bevan is stuck behind the kit.

Kicking off their three-song encore, Yannis and keyboard player Edwin Congreave returned to the stage to perform “Moon” as a duo; a delicately still number that could easily be mistaken as the work of fellow Oxford band Radiohead. Joined once more by the entire ensemble, darkness burst into a technicolor explosion for the pop-infused “My Number” only for the night to be capped off with the classic “Two Steps Twice” where an extended instrumental section allowed Yannis to jump down from the stage and wander through the unsuspecting crowds, resulting in many a priceless double-take.