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Foals and Esben and the Witch at the Paradise Rock Club

Foals live from 2008 - no camera at this show!

I’ve been meaning to write about Foals’ sophomore LP, Total Life Forever, for months now. It’s an interesting progression from their excellent 2008 debut, Antidotes, which ranked near the top of my best albums for that year. Total Life Forever abandons the prevailing notions that they’re a math-rock band solving equations—notions I never agreed with, given my decidedly American view of that genre with Don Caballero as its despot—and instead applying those Battles-esque guitar patterns to more personal, original material. Foals successfully avoid the sophomore jinx of their dance/post-punk peer Bloc Party, so I was excited to see how new favorites like “Blue Blood,” “Black Gold,” “Spanish Sahara,” and “What Remains” came off live.

Recent Matador signing Esben and the Witch was the lone opener for the show. Even with just a few singles to date, they’ve been lavished with praise and ultra-irritating buzz words like “Balearic” and “witch house.” Their Pitchfork-approved single “Marching Song” is quite good, but unfortunately their live show was a letdown. Their attempt to replicate the subtleties of their recorded output on stage relied (from what I could tell) too heavily on sequencers / tapes to bolster the ghostly vocals, heavily gauzed guitars, and periodic drum circle pounding. There’s a critical difference between staring at a band in awe and thinking “How are they making that noise?” and staring at a band and wondering “Are they making that noise?” When I saw M83 six years ago, there was a similar disconnect—I’d say 50% was pre-recorded, then Anthony Gonzalez and company hyper-strummed their guitars over top of it and made strained faces. I’d rather a band build up their sound from scratch than rely on a tape/drum machine to fill in the gaps. That’s what makes Battles’ live show so engrossing. Esben and the Witch’s songs may rely on an uneasy mystery, but the performances shouldn’t.

Whatever the sources, Esben and the Witch’s ultimate output drifted between the early gothic incantations of the Cocteau Twins, the druggy landscapes of Bardo Pond, and the psychedelic ramblings of Pocahaunted. Cocteau Twins might be the most intriguing comparison, but I thought more of their reliance on a drum machine than any vocal similarity with Liz Fraser. Cocteau Twins got away without having a drummer, but Esben and the Witch kept finding ways to circumvent it—having singer Rachel Davies pound away on a single drum and cymbal, bringing over the other two members for a relatively simply drum circle, bringing in drum machine loops. If they found a patient drummer capable of both tribal force and minimal touches—slowcore drummers like Codeine’s Doug Scharin and Pinebender’s Dennis Stacier come to mind—the other three members can focus on filling in the gaps of their sound. It may even be the case that less would be more for their haunted soundscapes. A work in progress in either case, but that should be expected from a band without a full-length.

All of this criticism is predicated upon the still-standing notion that “Marching Song” is worth hearing when Matador releases a 12” of it on October 12 in the United States. Its atmosphere is far more carefully cultivated on record, and the lengthy b-side “Souvenirs” stretches its echoes out to chilling effect. I can’t recall the last time I disliked a band’s set but still wanted to hear their recorded material, so Esben and the Witch isn’t a lost cause by any means. You can also catch them at Matador at 21 this weekend, you know, if you’re a total jerk and got tickets to the shindig.

Unlike Esben and the Witch, Foals’ songs are designed for the live setting. There’s no studio trickery or Line Six pedals behind their interlocking pieces, only quick fingers and strong foundations. Singer/guitarist Yannis Phillipakis’s idiosyncratic stage presence and hairstyle may get the brunt of the attention, but bassist Walter Gervers is their secret weapon. The slippery basslines of “Blue Blood” and “Total Life Forever” validate the Talking Heads comparisons, while the simpler lines for Antidotes singles “Cassius” and “Balloons” anchor the group’s trademark high-fretboard noodling. Between Gervers and solid drummer Jack Bevan, Foals are built from the back-end.

Foals’ set covered both albums with an emphasis on Antidotes. “Blue Blood” opened the show with a slight lack of energy, which was the case for a few of the Total Life Forever songs—the mellow ballad “2 Trees,” the languid beginning of “After Glow” in particular. These lulls confirm that the back end of Total Life Forever sags in spots and it may take more gigs for the group’s new range to translate live. The mesmerizing arc of “Spanish Sahara,” the album’s seven-minute advance single, proves it can happen. (Even acoustically!) Less surprisingly, the Duran Duran energy of “Miami” and Talking Heads funkiness of “Total Life Forever” each thrived on stage. I give them full points for skipping current single (and album weak point) “This Orient,” but “What Remains” and “Black Gold” would have been wise choices.

Antidotes may have less original songwriting than Total Life Forever, but Foals absolutely own those earlier songs on stage. Practice made perfect for the four prominent singles from Antidotes, since “Cassius,” “Balloons,” “Olympic Airways,” and “Red Sock Pugie” more than made up for the lulls. Foals continue to tweak these songs by extending outros and honing riffs. The percussive violence of “Electric Bloom” ended the main set, then the encore contained two more Antidotes favorites. “The French Open” hit a noticeably higher volume at its peak, while the precision tuning of “Two Steps, Twice” became epic as Yannis found his way up to the balcony of the newly renovated Paradise and then, rather suddenly, over it, returning to the stage to cue the song’s climax.

It makes sense logistically for these bands to tour together—they’re both English, Esben and the Witch get exposure early in their career without having to headline, Foals get associated with a stylistically disparate act gaining critical appeal—but the difference in approach still baffles me. Call me a rockist dinosaur all you want, but I enjoy seeing bands pull it off. Foals certainly do just that, nailing every instrumental trick, but more importantly, they surpass the recorded versions of “Spanish Sahara,” “Balloons,” and “Two Steps, Twice.” Merely replicating your recorded material is worth seeing once. (Ahem, Pelican.) Continuing to evolve it is worth repeat engagements. Esben and the Witch are much earlier in that process, but evolving your songs before being able to pull them off seems like a recipe for amorphous disaster.