Well, this is odd. 3pm on a Thursday afternoon and we’re wondering just what the rules are for a matinee performances at the Royal Albert Hall. Is getting drunk ok? What about crowd-surfing, pogoing and circle-pits? Can we sing along? No-one seems to know. The girl next to me is half-hiding a glass of beer under her coat, her occasional sips furtive and slightly guilty.
No such concern from Efterklang’s Casper Clausen, who raises his wine glass aloft, staring up at the tiers above. But then he’s dressed in a jacket and bow-tie, making my Skeletor t-shirt suddenly seem woefully inappropriate. Heck, he’s outdressed most of us: damn near every guy here looks the same, clad in checkered shirts capped by floppy hair. It’s a Midwich Cuckoos of fey indie boys, hustling close together in case the ushers mistake us all for squatters and have us removed.
But if there’s any band who are appropriate to these grand environs it’s Efterklang, their songs a marriage of scale and intimacy, of soaring melody and sonic ambition: their orchestra shows rate amongst the best things I’ve seen, and the last decade hasn’t produced many better hours of music than Parades, their 2007 second album. Sad then that they don’t quite nail it on this early show, their short setlist a touch too timid for the space and for the opportunity to enchant so large an audience. A few off-notes from Katinka Fogh Vindelev marring their opening doesn’t help either. In truth perhaps we’ve been spoilt by the band’s frequent dalliances with larger stagings: shorn of the strings and the brass these songs sound but shadows of their fuller vibrancy. Despite there being six musicians on stage, and only ‘Sedna’ really transcends the sense of limitation but, hey, it’s still an Efterklang show, and it’s always good to see a band so in love with music and so humble in their own performance of it.
There’s rather less humility on display from the headliners, but then why should there be: they’re playing the Royal Albert Hall. Yet these are incongruous surroundings for Foals, mere months on from the sweat of airless clubs, of Tunbridge Wells Forum with its rivers of urine, and it’s difficult not to feel some resentment for the seating constraints. Unlike most of the sound that enters this space this really isn’t music to just sit to, to absorb and observe, and for nine-tenths of us the several hundred or so people enclosed in the standing area become a kind of proxy, their convulsing and their flailing a projection of our own.
The urge to move comes early, Foals’ arrival onstage a protracted foreplay of guitar swell and drum restraint as ‘Prelude’ builds to a crescendo, its close filling the hall with noise and setting expectations high. And in the main they’re met, with a fifteen-song set leant heavily towards Holy Fire but taking in highpoints from across their career, from Antidote’s ‘Red Sock Pugie’ to Total Life Forever’s title track. ‘Blue Blood’ sets the standard, though, a dizzying cycle of ringing notes and frantic drumming, the backlighting casting band members’ shadows high above the circle to render their movements with the scale that the volume demands.
Highlights are everywhere, from ‘Milk & Black Spiders’ glorious extended outro to the moody slow-burn of ‘Spanish Sahara’, lasers tracing the contours of the room. On ‘Bleed Like You’ frontman Yannis Philippakis braves the crowd, roaming first through the stalls and then the standing area as hands clutch and grasp towards him like Romero zombies: one guy, moments after having scraped his hands through Philippakis’ hair, runs his tongue across his fingers with his eyes closed. Later the singer leaps into the throng from the photo pit and it’s some time before he’s visible again, whatever ordeal he suffered hidden from our eyes if not the hundred or so cameraphones strobing directly above him.
Would it be uncharitable to say that these were the best bits? Perhaps, but Foals are notably less interesting when their songs are simply building to a chorus or a vocal hook, and the more Yannis sings the more I pine for an alternate plane where Andrew Mears didn’t opt for Youthmovies. Sure, ‘My Number’ and ‘Bad Habit’ are pleasant enough but it’s away from the pop template that Foals really thrive, in the mathy rhythms and the driving beats and the instrumental jams that hint at another band lurking behind the radio-friendly NME cover stars, muscular, brutal and really very angry. Towards the end of main-set closer ‘Electric Bloom’, the stage kinetic and the volume become cataclysmic, Philippakis breaks his drumstick and reaches for another before realising that he’s broken all of them already, that he’s surrounded by the splintered remnants of his aggressive percussion.
It’s a shift epitomised in penultimate track ‘Inhaler’; its dynamic an inexorable scaling of tension and noise before it finally crests, its Zeppelin riff enormous. “Are you ready?” Yannis had asked us three times before it started and in retrospect we probably weren’t, not for that, not for a wall of sound that seismic and that thrilling. And whilst I miss the trumpets and the brass of their earlier material it’s hard – with the tinnitus still not quite subsided – not to be excited about where Foals might go next, whilst hoping that it won’t be simply be to the arenas.