Total Life Forever was exactly what Foals needed in 2010. The cliché of a band maturing has never ringed so true and it was a revolutionary direction for the band to take. There was the sense of inevitable stalling had Foals not displayed their ambitions and broke free of the engulfing grip of hype that surrounded Antidotes. Their previous guise as Oxford-eccentric, tweaking math rockers was wiped away and replaced with the brooding, deep and progressive sound of a band reinvented.
Impressively, Foals continue to progress their sound with Holy Fire. After finding their mainstream niche with Total Life Forever, Holy Fire helps reaffirms the band’s personality and potential through a concentrated and multi-dimensional record. What Holy Fire truly stands out for is the scope of the album. It is a testament to the band’s talents that such an assorted spectrum of songs produces such a cohesive unit. All intentional however, with lead vocalist Yannis Phillipakis claiming:
‘We were less neurotic about things sounding good. It was more about the humanity of the take. It was much more about things hitting you in the gut level. We wanted to be greedy with the album and push ourselves to explore new territory. When any two songs sounded alike, we made a point to alter one. I think it means the record has diversity.’
Taking the first two singles for example, it wouldn’t be unjustified to muddle the distorted guitar and fiery cry of Inhaler with Strays era Jane’s Addiction while the approachability and twitchy familiarity of My Number makes it an early contender for catchiest song of 2013. This is the combination of new dimensions of musical and vocal muscle interlaced with the famously intricate and shrill indie-pop that pushed Foals into the mainstream.
With the cautious anxiety of the band seemingly dissipated on Holy Fire, there is a new burning clarity in Phillipakis’ lyrics in particular, much less muddled and cryptic than previous work but still without threat of becoming prosaic. Themes of love, companionship and distance are strongly felt throughout. The melodic swoons and darker croons with which he has become synonymous find additional room throughout Holy Fire, creating an excellent blend of vocal reprieves and assaults.
Disappointingly, Holy Fire does suffer from a slight lull towards the middle of the album. Considering the variety on offer throughout Holy Fire, Bad Habit and Everytime do find themselves very similar sounding, back-to-back and lacking identity. Album opener Prelude is unfortunately a completely forgettable experience in front of the two lead singles, so it is left for the last third of the album to truly shine. Here we see both the brightest flames and the dying embers of Holy Fire combine. Stepson and Moon bring the album to an atmospheric, emotive and tantalising end. The album misses a true virtuoso performance of which Spanish Sahara presented on Total Life Forever, but Providence – the song Antidote’s Like Swimming always wanted to grow up and become – provides a thunderous crescendo that captures early Foals intensity with their new-found range and confidence to impressive results. The Jamie xx inspired Milk & Black Spiders displays one of the most creative tracks on the album, combining swirling strings with a vibrant, glistening steelpan-infused melody at the song’s pinnacle for a true representation of the innovative and versatile talent residing within the band. These two tracks step Holy Fire into sure-fire arena-tour status.
Holy Fire represents the sound of a band enjoying their evolution and that should be truly commended. However, such musical development no doubt forces comparisons to their earlier work. Foals’ musical direction and progression has been and still is intrinsically interesting and they now firmly command their own sound, but Holy Fire does not burn bright enough to truly exceed expectations like Total Life Forever did. As such, Holy Fire feels more like genre-refinement rather than the Earth-shattering development of the previous album. It is again another step in the right direction for Foals, but not so much a leap this time around.