Ever since the early days when they were playing tiny Oxford house parties Libertines-style, Foals has had the blessing of a popular audience. With their Skins-showcased adolescent anthem ‘Hummer’ and debut full-length Antidotes, a staple of the indie-pop explosion, the band reached a listenership beyond the NME cult, enjoying a two-year stint as the Top 40’s indie rock representatives up to the coming of Two Door Cinema Club and The Vaccines. The five-piece though, has always had ambitions beyond the indie disco floor-filler tag they inherited in 2008, and their subsequent work has seen them wrestle with the creative tension between popular appeal and progression.
2010’s Total Life Forever was a significant step forward, exploring ambient territory in greater detail while retaining the pop fundamentals of their debut. Critically acclaimed and widely appreciated, the record earned them a Mercury Prize nomination and a new moniker as the UK’s flagship guitar band. Their third LP comes entwined with greater anticipation; the excitement surrounding the album’s release has been one of almost complacent expectation that Holy Fire will be Foals’ long-awaited magnum opus. In fact, the only movement the band really makes on this record is sideways.
Many commentators have noted the raw humanity of Holy Fire, its almost feral wildness, but the overriding feeling here is the album’s remarkable similarity to its predecessor. Total Life Forever has been taken, it would seem, as the album’s template and its tracks have been re-worked to fit a different aesthetic. Gone is Total Life Forever’s ethereal underwater vibe and in its place a much more heated, smouldering atmosphere, its elemental core releasing a smoky incandescence. If their previous effort had an aquatic glow to it, an Atlantis-like mystery, then Holy Fire is the sound of Foals erupting from beneath the waves and spewing out chunks of debris in the form of thick riffs layered with distortion. ‘Inhaler’ is a case in point; it builds from a recognisably kooky hop to a howled chorus and an earth-shattering riff, a genuinely shocking departure in style and scope. The elemental vibes continue on ‘Providence’, its wailing high-pitch refrain and body-slam guitar line echoing ‘Inhaler’s untethered aggression. Front man Yannis Philippakis’s animalistic vocal runs through the album, his whimsical pop melodies converted into demonic screams. His lyrics also channel the record’s untamed energy: “I’m an animal just like you; I bleed just like you”.
In shape and structure though, the album draws all too obvious parallels with its predecessor. Both albums open with a flurry of bite-size would-be singles before breaking more melancholy ground on their second sides. ‘Last Night’ is dropped in at the mid-point on Holy Fire as a mood-changer, just as ‘Spanish Sahara’ did on Total Life Forever; the similarity between the two tracks in style as well as function is frustrating. Holy Fire’s denser second side continues with ‘Stepson’ and ‘Moon’, two tracks which feature thick ambient chords washing over choruses complete with vocal ‘ooh’s. The latter scratches at the soul more than any other track on the record, its reverberating chords pointing perhaps towards a Sigur Ros influence.
Foals’ ability to craft a great hook remains however, and on Holy Fire they free themselves up to unleash one or two of their very best. ‘My Number’ is carried by an infectious pop hook and the high hat slaps that sign off each bar are irresistibly catchy. Though it’s not clear exactly where the track fits into the album as a whole, and it does bear an uncanny resemblance to the old 90210 theme, it’s a monster hit for the band. ‘Everytime’ is another decent pop tune, its oriental-tinged intro melting into a spiky riff set to rumbling drums. The track is watered down by some of Yannis’ lyrical gibberish (“Every time I see you, I just want to sail away”) but explores some interesting orchestral sounds on the final chorus.
While it doesn’t represent the zenith of Foals’ creative endeavour and nor is it their best collection of tunes, there is enough evidence on Holy Fire of Foals’ continuing taste for reinvention and their inherent ability to craft great songs.
It feels as though Foals’ masterpiece, if and when it does eventually come, will be an album characterised by the dense ambient textures they have momentarily explored on Total Life Forever and Holy Fire. Their third album doesn’t really expand on songs like ‘Spanish Sahara’, rather it re-imagines them within an album of different colours and flavours to its predecessor. In this sense, it’s a sideways step for the band and, while loveable in its own right, it still feels as though they’ve something ‘bigger’ to offer.
… Jack is Listening to Eels – ‘Electro-Shock Blues’