Foals 'Holy Fire'

Holy Fire
(Transgressive/Warner Music)

You have to feel sorry for Foals sometimes.

The UK quintet really did set the bar too high early on in the piece. Back when many of their contemporaries were putting out patchy EPs of badly produced, hollowed out carcasses of the bands they would (or didn't ever) become, Yannis Philippakis and his mates sprung into the world pretty much fully formed. If anything, they’ve spent their last two albums and the decade they blew away rock kids and dance fiends with ‘Hummer’ and ‘Mathletics’ respectively, trying to tone their sound down. With a huge range of influences, an expansive playing ability and a seemingly bottomless pit of synchronised, syncopated, interlocking riffs, Foals were never going to be the band who were easy to sing along to in your car. Until they were.

That change happened on 2010's Total Life Forever -- the first time they showed that they could perhaps out-Coldplay Coldplay, with the utterly stunning and moody ballad ‘Spanish Sahara’, which has since become a touchstone for the band while promptly redefining the term ‘slow burner.’ With meatier sounds and choruses that veered towards pop, the other Oxford quintet challenged their reputation as math-rock nerds who couldn't put a chorus together. It’s pretty much the exact meamorphosis another equally intelligent band, Metronomy, underwent with their second album.

Holy Fire, then, is Foals’ attempt at piecing together the conflicting versions of themselves they’ve presented since their inception and take a proper stab at being a band that you’ll still pay money to see in the next phase of your life. (Aka: getting on.) As such, it has a lot of the great things that made Total Life Forever entertaining, but even more nods towards to heavier sound from Antidotes. In fact, there’s some serious, crunching riffage here that is far from light on its feet. That’s new for these guys, who always balanced their metal with their mettle, but it suits them -- as opposed to once-peers Bloc Party, who came off sounding like a B-grade Linkin Park on their last outing.

This is palpable from the sonic destruction of first single ‘Inhaler’, which runs up a fretboard that must belong to Zeus while Yannis belts out over the top of, before dropping into comfortable funk-rock territory in the verse. It’s even more noticeable—if that’s the right word for it—in the seriously epic outros to both ‘Prelude’ and ‘Providence’. This is the old Foals reminding new fans what they do best.

The major problem for Foals is they can’t settle, even when they’re settling on the idea of settling. They’re an indie band who love funk, a rock band that can’t stay away from pop and an experimental outfit that just want everyone to put their lighters up and holler along. Finding a balance, even when you’ve been doing it for this long, remains an unenviable task.

Drummer Jack Bevan can’t resist throwing in Ghrol-esque fills, while guitarist Jimmy Smith flicks out little specks of upper-fret gold whenever there’s a chance -- even when not appropriate. This all makes Foals incredibly interesting as an act and remarkably resilient for fans who are continually given something new to sink their teeth into with every release. But it’s harder for new fans, who’ll find the huge gap between straight-ahead numbers like ‘Everytime’ and calypso-grunge of ‘My Number’ disorienting.

One does hope that Foals’ uncompromising individuality keeps them in rotation for a while yet, though. They’ve got the chops and curiosity to deserve long-term investment. And if not, there's this: by god if this album doesn’t sound amazing a full volume, tearing down the street at night…

Jonno Seidler


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