Published on May 14th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
TFS Classic Song of the Week – “Spanish Sahara” by Foals
In the first installment of our new feature, we take a deep dive into Foals’ career-defining opus. Noah investigates the secret to its staying power.
A few days ago, I commemorated the 10th anniversary of The National’s High Violet. Later that day, I inexplicably found myself on Foals’ Wikipedia page as a part of one of those quarantine-boredom Internet rabbit holes. Much to my chagrin, I had completely forgotten about the 10th anniversary of another classic record in the annals of indie rock. Total Life Forever was released on May 10, 2010, officially crowning that glorious week in 2010 a possible contender for indie rock’s apex mountain. But despite my admiration, I can’t deny that both albums were seminal to a sub-canon of music that I was a little too young to be tuned into at that point. As noted in The National review, all I can do is really acknowledge their existence, the 10 years as a benchmark of success.
Yet, just as I offered my personal experience of High Violet’s infiltration of my teenage mind, I can only offer up the same recollection of Foals’ role in my journey of music fandom. That being said, another album review seemed redundant. Both of these bands and their respective records were discovered at a similar enough point in my life that whatever I projected onto The National would sound eerily similar to what I projected onto Foals. Both bands embraced different sides of the same weighty coin; they both utilized atmosphere, heart-on-sleeve emotions, and nuanced iterations of rock language to evoke a kind of pure heaviness. So if you want to know how I feel about Total Life Forever, you don’t need to look further than that High Violet review. Instead of repeating myself, I chose to do something different to celebrate Foals’ big anniversary.
“Spanish Sahara” technically premiered on March 1, 2010. But it features so prominently on the Oxford band’s sophomore record, and in also in the grand scheme of their career, that I felt it was still worthy of a deep dive in lieu of an album review. I discovered the song when I was in one of those youthful, intrepid journeys of discovery, absolutely drunk on that melancholic indie stuff. You could say I was particularly crescendo-crazed when this track entered my orbit (or, rather, I entered its orbit). The novelty of the “slow-build to a slick solo” formula on which classic rock bands like Zeppelin or Pink Floyd made their name just didn’t do it for me anymore. Those bands were decades away from me, rocking out in a zeitgeist that felt increasingly harder to relate to.
Even more recent chart-toppers like Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age felt, ironically enough, like jock rock. By the time the ‘10s rolled around, the edge that those bands once boasted had been smoothed over by the cruel hands of time. Loner classics like “Everlong” or “Heart-Shaped Box” were in heavy enough rotation on local rock radio that every tasteless tom, dick, and harry could be found blasting them in Chevy Silverados and sweaty locker rooms all over the country. It was all so blasé. At least that was the cynicism too-cool-for-school Noah began to develop.
So just as I vividly recall the day I discovered The National, I also have an indelible memory of cruising through Youtube aimlessly until stumbling upon this band called Foals. The song was, you guessed it, “Spanish Sahara,” and that ethereal falsetto immediately drove a dagger into my heart. It’s one of those memories of musical discovery you never forget; a moment where it all clicks, in which a line, a hook, a vibe with which you would’ve never previously connected clicks into place. I had been digging bands like Bon Iver and Grizzly Bear. I had enough of a primer in atmospheric mood rock to understand why I liked “Spanish Sahara.” But up to that point I had never heard anything quite like it.
The track begins with such a delicately plucked and achingly sparse chord progression that it cannot help but immediately signal the “fury in your head” that is to come. As frontman Yannis Philippakis practically whispers, “So I walked into the haze. And a million dirty waves,” the imagery of the music video’s white-out color palette and all-around ice-cold aesthetic coalesced brilliantly with the lyrics. As the track moves into its hook, I remember feeling as if I had solved some vexing equation. “Spanish Sahara/the place that you’d wanna/leave the horror here” forms a rhyme scheme that I had never quite heard, complete with the quintessentially British pronunciation of “horror” that made it chime with perfectly with “wanna.”
As the song runs into its chorus—“forget the horror here/leave it all down here/it’s future rust and it’s future dust”—the growing intensity of the kick drum triggered the first signs of the epic tidal wave to come. The warbly guitars summon a lonely paradise, a warm feeling of isolation. It was the sound of a culminating anxiety, a cathartic “fury” beginning to spread like wildfire.
The band was fully aware of the way that slow, quiet made promises about the direction it was headed. Drummer Jack Bevan to The Vine: “We’re really proud of that song. When we first wrote it, it was like any song, where we were just playing all the way through it. And then we just decided, after Yannis had nailed the lyrics, that we’d try and kick everything out except the guitars and just some ambiance at the beginning. So it builds and really kicks off at the end.” What is striking here is the level of efficiency and charisma with which they execute this approach. As the drums fill out, the second verse does more than encourage patience; it makes patience exciting. The song returns to its foundation of stillness, teasing out its intensity in order to make its future explosion even more impactful.
Finally, as Philippakis picks up steam with his second wave of “I’m the fury in your head,” the song begins to percolate with energy. Bevan continues: “For me as a drummer, it was quite hard to get the restraint to sit back and not play over the first couple of minutes and then gradually come in, but when it does kick in, it’s probably the most fun part of the set to actually play.” It’s the kind of instrumental climax that is embracingly predictable. These things never surprise as much as they viscerally overwhelm. It’s the very explicit signals the thunderous beat and thickening atmosphere send out as they expand—that’s what makes a crescendo like this special.
From here, the song writes itself. Synth loops and smooth, understated riffs ring out into a dense cacophony of noise. The band then jams away at a natural conclusion. But don’t be mistaken, it’s the set up that satisfies the most. Foals have made a career on setting themselves up, putting exorbitant amounts of attention into maneuvering themselves into a position where they can just let it rip, flex their muscles as musicians. “Spanish Sahara” is the epitome of this sensibility, a fresh spin on an old formula that combines the principle of undeniable resonance with the axiom of irrefutable musicianship.
For me, this track will always be an experience. It will always be a memory of the first time I heard it. It’s highly re-listenable, but its point of reference will always be the first moment where it clicked—one of those definitive episodes where your taste changes overnight, or at least, where the groundwork you’ve been steadily laying for that big eureka moment finally feels worthwhile. We can all boil our musical taste down to a few iconic albums or tracks, the ones we can listen to again and again without getting bored. But it’s the experience of discovering them, of exploring them as palpable living things, that shape us. Personally, this Foals song is synonymous with that experience.
So…what was your “Spanish Sahara” moment?