summary: imposingly majestic - almost
When Foals released their sophomore album, Total Life Forever, I was tentative, as I wasn’t sold on their debut effort Antidotes. I found it to be twee and grating; an irritating amalgamation of all the indie rock ingredients that left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly the forced-sounding, accented vocals. It did offer a few interesting dynamics, but neglected to conjure up any discernible emotion or connection.
I decided to listen to a session recording of Blue Blood, the opener of Total Life Forever, and found myself really enjoying it. Yannis Philippakis was actually singing rather than crudely yelping, the song sounded meaningful and evocative, and the instrumentation was considered and crafted. Then, I found that throughout the rest of Total Life, Foals were presenting us with something relatable rather than merely abstract, and it was all the more listenable because of it.
Having garnered attention with their debut like a toddler’s scribbling on a wall, and enhancing their sound and structures with Total Life, all eyes were on Foals and Holy Fire, an album which sees the band delve even further into the craftsmen’s pool. Its overall sound is decidedly vast, but with scope rather than grandiloquence. It still packs those trademark tightly picked guitar notes that are present in their previous two albums, but as with Total Life, they are used texturally rather than predominantly, as they were on Antidotes. Unlike Total Life, though, they’ve been accompanied at times by boisterous, blistering, muddy riffs and expressive drum roars. Holy Fire is, almost, as imposingly majestic as its great album cover.
But there’s the key word – almost. The album, somewhat frustratingly, falls short of the mark a few too many times. My Number is undoubtedly a catchy song, but it suffers from sore thumb syndrome, feeling too much like it was always the purpose to make it a single. The subject matter is trivial and is perhaps too far removed from everything else on the album. Everytime is an irksome song in the way that it has a really nice groove, but it never quite progresses anywhere past the disappointingly hushed chorus which is also bogged down by the mundaneness of the lyric ‘Every time I see you, I wanna sail away’.
Luckily, there are plenty of saving graces to counteract these grievances. Inhaler is an impactful song and provides us with a sound we haven’t heard from Foals before – loud, dirty, fuzzy, moshable, 'turned up to 11' rock. Milk and Black Spiders has a subtle underlying tension throughout, but when the explosion unexpectedly arrives it really rounds the track off to a fulfilling conclusion. Late Night is carried by a bouncing rhythm and an endearing refrain, closing with a playful, floating jam. There is a visceral, fierce quality to Providence, a song which highlights how far Philippakis has come as a vocalist. Then, the album’s one-two closers, Stepson and Moon, slow the record to a halt, inciting reflection in a rather beautiful manner.
The fairest comment that I could give to Foals is that they visit every point of the spectrum in the hopes of creating a varied, versatile album with something for everyone – the only trouble is that some points are much more fully formed than others. With Holy Fire, they’ve shown that they’re more than capable of producing louder, heavier music than we’re used to hearing from them, and they’ve also proved to be at their very best with their moodier, less beat-driven music. It’s just the middle-ground grooves that haven’t found their feet yet, standing precariously on the ‘filler material’ border. They’re flirting with brilliance without quite fully getting there – but when they hit the mark, man, do they hit the mark.