Foals sets standard for rock shows at Fox Theater performance

Imad Pasha/Staff

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A useful metric for analyzing concerts is not the pure musicality and lyricism of the band but rather tracing its ability to shift successfully between diametrically opposed, polarized modes of performance without losing the audience. In live show after live show, the effect becomes apparent as sets drag — not because they are “too downtempo,” but because the temporal flow of the set is one of unchanging tempos and dynamics or too-similar riffs and basslines and drum fills. Often it is a combination or permutation thereof.

But when a band circles shiftily and playfully around a lyrical or sonical concept and then strikes with precise intensity, that really separates the masses of touring bands from the real deal.

Foals is the real deal.

Seamlessly sliding between light, melodious indie-rock riffs and near-metal shredding and screaming, from lighters held aloft to mosh pits circling violently, Foals has unequivocally mastered the art of the rock show and proved it at the Fox Theater on Monday night.

It wasn’t that the band threw in slow songs between the heavy rock thrashers. It somehow integrated both into almost every song and, moreover, did so seamlessly. The band’s performance of “Spanish Sahara” acted as a memory wipe; it was indescribable, while trapped in a mosh pit of swirling bodies, how that very song started with soothing, lapping ocean waves and a single, floating guitar riff under haunting falsetto vocals.

More than dynamic range, each song shifted somehow imperceptibly between funk or alternative grooves and straight-rock riffs and chord progressions. The band members themselves were as dynamic as their tracks, as frontman Yannis Philippakis shredded solos with a signature pirouette on his left foot and sang with expressive arms tracing out seemingly mystical patterns in the air around him. Guitarist Jimmy Smith powered through chord progressions riding the very front edge of the stage.

Foals has mastered the art — or perhaps the science — of wholly differentiating its live show from its recorded tracks. There are about 10 orders of magnitude between the way its heaviest tracks sound on record — evenhanded, subdued even — and the live show, which assails with raw energy and musicality, with Muse-level grandiosity and a Foo Fighters commitment to making two guitars loud enough to shake loose some bricks in the venue’s walls.

The intensity with which the Oxford-based quintet launched itself at every chord, heavy or not, obliterated the lapse in energy that seems to accompany most sets around three-quarters of the way through. It also obliterated the concept of building up toward a finale; the band opened with the roiling, rocking “Snake Oil,” and the crowd responded in kind, sending the vibrations of their jumping and crashing about all around the theater.

That was just the opener. By the time Foals’ closer “Inhaler” rolled around, Philippakis was standing on top of the crowd as Val Loper of opener Bear Hands sprinted and leaped off the stage over the 5-foot-wide barrier head first into the audience around three rows deep, achieving a solid second-and-a-half of airtime in the process.

It almost feels like a petty complaint to levy, given the way they legitimately seemed to be transferring raw energy to the crowd, but there was a nagging disappointment that they didn’t explore beyond the typical stadium talk between songs. In one more-spontaneous moment, the band introduced the cathartic “Spanish Sahara” as a way to wash clean the horror of the presidential debate, which aired prior to the band coming on stage.

The job of a review, somewhat explicitly, is to sum up and contextualize performances, but Foals stubbornly refuses to be pigeonholed. One could make myriad comparisons to bands spanning the genre spectrum, but the accuracy of any such claims would be fleeting at best, accurate to a few seconds within a track here or there. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that Foals, at least in its live performance, shows us how broad rock can really be. It’s a bold claim, but even while calling Foals “rock” is not insignificantly reductionist, the band has firmly secured a spot as a gold standard for rock shows today.

Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected].