Double albums are ill-advised. The list of failures vastly outweighs the list of successes and even those deemed a success could probably deal with a 20 minute haircut and be none the worse for it and the worse offenders have less than one album’s worth spread over 80 minutes or more. Other problems the 80 minute tome has to overcome are listener fatigue and saturation. Most movies struggle to retain one’s attention for that long. Nearly an hour and a half of the same voice is a lofty ambition to keep the focus from a generation of dopamine addicted, playlist focussed, attention deficit audiences.
Foals just about pull it off.
They have been incredibly canny in their strategy for getting this music out there but it is clear that before talks of how to get two albums worth of material out without boring the public, that they had 80 minutes of material worth putting out. It is remarkable that each half of the record is a tight 40 minutes and each takes you on a journey through their 10 tracks a piece. Each half probably has 1-2 tracks that could be dropped from the runtime but even those offer a reprieve or a different vista that works as part of the whole. Single disc releases often have worse hit-rates than that.
More on this in a bit, let’s take a look at the first half.
Part 1: In Depth
Moonlight opens beautifully to ease the listener into the album before Exits brings back the math rock jangle of their first two albums to fore with the muscle of later output backing it up – six minutes fly by with this one. White Onions keeps the pace and early records feel going again with a driving back line that punches hard as the guitars and vocals dance nimbly on top. Further turning up the tempo is In Degrees – a clear stab at a dance club track, displaying its peacock feathers for all DJs in want of an easy target – it really comes to fruition with the synth line at around the 3:30 mark.
Syrups is a slower affair with its steady rhythm and lilting riff accompanying level vocal melodies that are often layered – the combination of which create a comfortable musical hug. That would have been fine but 3 minutes in the tempo raises and those ominous indicators that things are about to kick off start to appear (Foals do this so well) and it builds to an incendiary finish with Yannis calling out over the top of the now frantic version of the earlier hug that ha no intention to comfort. Unnecessary gear change? Almost certainly. Still feels good though.
On the Luna comes as almost a reset button and we are back into Exits type territory and somewhat reminiscent of My Number from Holy Fire as the poppy synths and clean riffs take over. From here is where Part 1 loses the plot a little bit. Café D’Athens is in my view the only turkey on this half of the record. The band tried to push it on social media – over and above the actual singles – and it jars in every context. Yannis’ vocal is messy, the music behind him is a bunch of half baked ideas. Good ones! But too many, half baked and ultimately wasted as none of them find any room to breathe. One almost thinks that they were aiming for a tight 40 minutes on each half by design where possible and this may have been 2 tracks if given a little more room to manoeuvre. It tries so hard to recover and go somewhere but ultimately fails.
Surf, Pt.1 was used on the teaser trailers for the project and what a pretty piece it is. Only 45 seconds long it serves as a musical reference here to tie the two parts of the record together as it gets full treatment on Part 2.
Sunday (alongside Exits) is almost emblematic of this part of the album. The slow steady start leading to a gear shift in tempo and volume simultaneously – one of the better executions on the record – as it descends almost into an all out rave before resetting to a controlled yet bombastic ending. I’d have left off with the rave myself but it maybe needed reigning back in ahead of the final track.
I’m Done with the World has been a grower on me. It is one of the most tender songs they have in their discography. It feels like a half time massage after all that has come before (and it will be needed in preparation for Part 2…).
Where they fall down slightly here is that there is almost a cookie cutter approach to each track. To start slow or quiet, build to a crescendo, break down then come smashing back in either louder, with increased tempo or both. This is a feature that has plagued their music for a fair few records now as they go for that live adrenaline rush. There is nothing inherently wrong with it either. Humans are simple creatures and if it sparks those reward centres, then great. However when listening to a full album (or in this case two!) it can get a little tired and predictable.
This does not mean the technique is without innovation. It is very welcome on In Degrees and Sunday in particular and each occurrence offers a different take that keeps it fresh and exciting but structurally speaking, it’s the same trick rebranded.
Back to the ‘canny strategy’ I mentioned earlier. Once they had their pile of music, Foals must have seen the challenge now facing them. Double-length releases often don’t land and it’s not necessarily due to a dearth of good ideas and not enough restraint to hone in the collection of tracks (though that doesn’t help matters). Listener fatigue is a real issue. Whether it takes the form of Kings of Leon’s early days releasing albums every 6 months like they existed in the 60’s when they didn’t, or the recent pop release schedules of the likes of Ed Sheeran or Justin Bieber who never really go away and call a 2 year break (the creative minimum between albums these days – unless you are King Gizzard) a hiatus. They knew that not only did both halves need to be jam packed with all-killer, they had to give audiences a break between them or else the gold in the second half wouldn’t be heard.
And so it was they released the first part in March 2019 and the second in October 2019. The songs on each part oddly reflected the seasons in which they would be heard too – though that may be hindsight overlay or coincidence arising from the design of the project. This schedule avoided listener fatigue through giving each part space to breath and they had the arsenal to back it too (as we shall see in a moment).
Oh also with 2 releases it means you can tour twice on the same release of course. Live is where they really shine. I have had the pleasure of seeing them a couple of times now and most recently was at Glastonbury 2016 supporting Muse on the Friday night. they should have been headliners in their own right and lit the field on fire as the sun set. Some musically well-versed folk I was with and dragged along had never seen or heard them before (admittedly they are of a slightly older demographic so fair enough) and couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Job done! Covid-19 may mean I regret not going to Ally Pally last year instead of waiting for Olympia this year – we shall see. I digress. Ready for Part 2?
Part 2: In Depth
Red Desert is a 75 second intro comprising an airy organ-like synth introducing a tentative building guitar bend sequence that gives way to the grunt and muscle of a full bodied riff on Part 2 opener-proper The Runner. Be under no illusions here, Part 2 is designed to rip your face off – or rather rip up the road (see Black Bull).
Wash Off is a high pace jangly affair keeping the energy high and the riffs loud between the record’s two big hitters of The Runner and Black Bull. Black Bull is the mega artillery on the record. The band described it as the biggest riff they have ever written (and that’s a high bar for the band) with each listen I am inclined to agree more and more with them and cannot wait to see it live – whenever their intended Olympia show in May actually happens (cheers Covid-19). There is only one way to experience Black Bull and that is as loud and as physically as you can possibly muster in any given circumstances. Yannis shouts in his idiosyncratic style for the ‘loud tracks’ over riffs that defy most amp overdrive systems. They are aiming big here and hitting the bullseye.
Like Lightning follows up with a slightly lighter, groovy affair. I say ‘lighter’ – it is only comparative to its predecessor. It almost feels like a Black Keys track with its confident swagger and blues drive.
Dreaming Of is a cookie cutter Foals song that could have appeared on any prior album. It is a brilliant track and on any other release it would be a lead single yet here it is over-shadowed somewhat by its bigger stablemates. It also marks the end of the rush. From the start of this side to the end of this track is a relentless tour de force. Ikaria is a 45 second palate cleanser and time out before 10,000 Feet twinkles into view and again progresses through the staple sounds of the first 3-4 records Foals released, alternating and shifting gear adeptly but still keeping to the outline mentioned above. It is a piece of technical and structural mastery and like Dreaming Of would be a big release on any other record.
Into the Surf brings the teased riff in part one into a fully fleshed out track and brings a sense of resolve and calm after the onslaught. A beautiful glockenspiel riff rides over a simple back line while Yannis croons and laments between them. Just a simple breakdown on this track leaves it in tact in feel without needlessly dragging it into a spectacle. It’s nice to see a track just left to be itself by this stage of the record.
Neptune is an unwieldy and odd affair that rambles on for 10 minutes. It’s audacious of them to have released this barely cogent, free-form ramble as a single. All the space Café D’Athens could have done with in the first half seems to be gratuitously used up here to create a track that scratches no itch yet guides you out of the album in comfortable but aimless style.
What is remarkable about ENSWBL as a whole is how well it hangs together when listened to back to back and how well-paced it is. With the March and October split release, many claimed it was two separate albums. I can see that point of view and where each of these albums easily and readily stand on their own feet as individuals, when taken as a whole their power is amplified. It also stands alone as a pair from the rest of their discography. There is a feeling and theme throughout the record both musically and lyrically that ties the whole thing together as one.
I’m a double album sceptic of the highest order but they seem, in my view, to have evaded the pitfalls of double album releases. Deftly done.
One more thing…
A note to labels, bands, marketers, merchandisers and promoters in the music industry. If you go for the dual release system, don’t f*ck over your loyal fans. Foals released the deluxe edition in March with a lush 12″ book and extra single vinyl which contained a slot for a Part 2 picture disc on release later in the year – lovely. A code was sent by email later in the year to give a small discount on the second part. However, even after that (ignoring the double postage), those who supported the band through Part 1 were being charged around £6 more to complete the set than those purchasing the whole thing at once after the second part was released. I complained and got it sorted (think I paid £1 more instead in the end – fine) but not everyone will have done. This is a type of cynicism or incompetence which is unacceptable. The industry has done it for a long time with special editions with 2 bonus tracks released a few months after the initial release and no separate purchase option; or signed versions becoming available only after release so those who pre-ordered miss out. This type of behaviour is not on and ultimately will undermine trust in artists, labels and the industry as a whole. And don’t get me started on the problems with downloading MP3 versions (which I still don’t have) – TGF Spotify is all I’ll say here. A sour note on an otherwise superb release.
Part 1: Exits, In Degrees, On the Luna, Sunday, I’m Done with the World
Part 2: The Runner, Black Bull, Like Lightning