Foals: Holy Fire
Alright, this is one of my favorite bands here, so let me give you a brief history of Oxford, England indie-rockers Foals. Their 2008 debut album Antidotes is one of my top albums of all time - definitely in the top 5. It combines heavy drum beats with an insane amount of syncopation (lots of random starting and stopping), all the while singer Yannis Philippakis belted out nonsensical lyrics in a British accent so thick you could cut it with a tea knife while queuing up for crisps. Then in 2010 came sophomore release Total Life Forever, which was quite a change. Perhaps the biggest shift came in the vocals; whereas Antidotes focused on their tone and not their content to set the mood of songs, Total Life Forever actually injected a great deal of sincerity and depth into the lyrics and Philippakis showed his ability to croon rather than belt out words, seemingly losing his accent in the process. I remember someone making a "more like Fleet Foals" jibe on their last.fm page over the vocal shift. Musically, there was a lot less syncopation as well, and the songs were somewhat gentler and used more guitar harmonics, sometimes having a post-punk sound. All in all Total Life Forever didn't win me over at first but grew on me with each listen.
Now we have Foals' third album, Holy Fire, which follows Total Life Forever by distancing itself even further from the heavy drum beats and choppiness of Antidotes. Even though I would have loved a return to the original math rock sound, Holy Fire shows that Foals can blend their trademark sound with more cut-and-dry indie rock, though they also show their inability to try anything really different.
Holy Fire opens with "Prelude," a four-minute long instrumental song that slowly builds in what can only be described as the funkiest Foals has ever sounded. There's a noticeable moment where the song really gets quiet before an immediate chaotic burst of energy, showing the varying dynamics that can be heard throughout the album. All in all, it's a really solid opener, and it flows very nicely into single "Inhaler," which takes some cues from its predecessor. Its choppy guitars are matched with Philippakis' falsetto vocals, all until the intensity really lets loose at the chorus. And the song's outro of a droning rhythm section with picked guitar harmonics really reminds you that this is a Foals album in case you'd forgotten. The only downside is that the song is a bit of a lyrical step down from what Total Life Forever offered, with lyrics such as "I shimmy and shake, I wake and bake." Luckily, there's lyrical depth later in the album.
And what better way to follow up a great single with another single that's just as good if not better! "My Number" might just be the poppiest song Foals have done, and its fairly simple guitar part is catchy as hell. Sure there are the guitar harmonics throughout to add the Foals sound, but for the most part it sounds a straightforward indie rock song that has a strong 80s classic rock influence"¦and it's pretty damn good.
With the two singles out of the way comes tracks like "Bad Habit," which might be the most sincere track on the album. The track's light and repetitive guitar part almost sounds like a music box, and Philippakis sings lines such as "cause I'm a bad habit, one you cannot shake" in an overly-earnest tone not heard since "This Orient" on Total Life Forever. However, once the song takes away the guitar melody at the very end, it loses a bit of its charm. It doesn't help too much that the three tracks following this number aren't particularly grasping tracks, and while they may grow on me in the future, they just haven't seemed to memorable yet.
The next highlights of the album come about three-quarters into Holy Fire with the tracks "Milk & Black Spiders" and "Providence." The former has an odd sense of desperation as the guitar rushes ahead of Philippakis' reverberating vocals, proclaiming at the chorus "I've been around two times and found you're the only thing I need." It's definitely the most grandiose track on the album with backup vocals providing harmony on the chorus and a climactic string part at the end. The latter, "Providence" has a bit of a darker tone, noticeable in the way Philippakis says the line "I'm an animal just like you - I bleed just a little bit too, I bleed just like you." This is probably the heaviest song on the album, and its break that reminds me of "After Glow" on Total Life Forever shows the choppy guitar and rapid-fire drumming is something Foals definitely should keep in their arsenal.
Unfortunately, the album kind of closes on a sour note with two slow tracks that just kind of mope their way along to the end of the album. "Stepson" just sounds really hollow with its toned-down slowed-down instrumentation and overdone reverb, and really just is kind of a bad fit for the album. And final track "Moon" doesn't do much to lift this, even if it is a little more bearable than its predecessor with its gentleness. Still, both of these tracks are way too slow and boozy mopefests relative to the rest of the album, and as they don't sound like anything Foals have done before, kind of come off as missteps. This isn't to say that Foals can't do slow songs - in fact "Spanish Sahara" from Total Life Forever is amazingly well done - but these lack the building crescendos and total changes in tone that make their monotony really stand out.
Overall, Holy Fire holds some new directions for Foals, and shows their ability to change sounds while still retaining their trademark musical characteristics that make fans love them. There are some real great standout tracks on this album, and they're frankly necessary to balance out the so-so midsection and bummer closer tracks. While it may not have enough syncopation and jarring guitar parts to qualify as math rock anymore, Holy Fire does still have a very Foals sound to it while moving more towards straightforward (but really good) indie rock and post-punk.