Album Review: Foals – Holy Fire

Foals can be a hard band to love.  Across the Oxford quintet’s three-disc oeuvre, they’ve made it abundantly clear that they are more than capable of nailing a variety of sweet spots, from punk-funk collages (‘Blue Blood’) to throatily furious rockers (‘Inhaler’), and of course, majestic, slow-burning groovers (‘Spanish Sahara’, ‘Late Night’).  Clearly, Yannis Philippakis and co. can bring the tunes when they want to.  And yet, I can’t quite bring myself to fully embrace them.

The underlying problem for me, personally, is the impression that these guys take themselves a little too seriously for their own good.  Ambition and high concepts are always to be encouraged, but when such big themes are dealt with in such a no-nonsense manner, Foals do tend to come off as decidedly po-faced on occasion.  They can certainly be gripping company, but they still haven’t found a happy balance between sonic intrigue and emotional potency.

That said, it hasn’t stopped them from writing some of their best material yet for album number three, laying strong foundations with a muscular opening salvo.  First single ‘Inhaler’ builds around tightly-coiled, falsetto-laced verses, before rearing up with a monster of a chorus: its crushing guitar line smashing into the mix like a battering ram as Philippakis screams “I CAN’T GET ENOUGH SPAAAAACE!”  It’s a moment of sheer reckless ferocity, and one which makes the listener wonder why the group attempt such material so rarely.  ‘My Number’ positively bounces with exuberance; its sweet, supple refrains of “I feel / I feel the love” all the richer for their candour, while its arrangements sound locked-in yet pleasantly sparse.

As always, Foals‘ true strengths are to be found in their rhythm section, and here, drummer Jack Bevan and bassist Walter Gervers have plenty of wonderful opportunities to showcase their talents, not least on the moonlit, Pink Floyd-ian odyssey of ‘Late Night’.  The production, too, finds a nice middle ground between the glossiness of the band’s previous work and a rawer, fuzzier tone, and tracks such as ‘Bad Habit’ (whose central guitar motif sounds amusingly similar to that of The Temper Trap’s ‘Sweet Disposition’) find the group stretching eagerly towards the stadium circuit.

Holy Fire is certainly a lot leaner and more consistent than 2010’s Total Life Forever, which was so overbearingly top-heavy that I could never really get much further beyond ‘This Orient’ without completely losing interest.  This effort is certainly more focused and less meandering, but a handful of tracks do sound a little undercooked.  Take ‘Everytime’, for example.  Although based around a perfectly strong hook, its potential is never fully realised, sporting a chorus which fails to upshift gears as a host of elements are lost in an all-too-tempered mix.  It’s moments like these that Foals’ seriousness sours proceedings.

The other big issue I – and many others – have with Holy Fire lies with its lyrics: Philippakis has become a little too prone to indulging in stale metaphors and overblown sentiments.  His love for the mythological could have provided fertile ground for some rich imagery and magical storytelling, but instead, he too often retreats into bland portents such as “I know I cannot be true / I’m an animal just like you”, which sours the growl-and-grind of ‘Providence’ to the point of frustration.  This kind of shortcoming is rendered all the more painful when you consider a track like ‘Moon’, which is quite possibly Holy Fire‘s strongest moment.  Philippakis’ lyrics may remain a little dubious in isolation, but when partnered with such a breathtaking atmosphere of delicate sounds and haunting textures, his bluster finally coalesces to form a strange kind of sense.  If only he’d taken more risks such as this, rather than settling for the all-too-broad sentiments of ‘Providence’ and ‘Out Of The Woods’, then perhaps Holy Fire would fit together better as a whole.

There’s nothing truly intolerable about this record.  The musicianship is definitely stronger than ever, with the band’s craft honed and sharpened this time around, and yes, this album does house some cracking numbers.  However, though some might balk to hear it, Foals still haven’t procured true greatness.  Instead, they lurk tantalisingly at the fringe of the big leagues: stomping, straining, and making impressive sounds, but ultimately, lacking that subtle spark to propel themselves any further.  Perhaps if they loosen up a little, and wrangle a more emotionally visceral approach to their art, that mantle may be within their grasp next time around.  For the time being, we have Holy Fire: a strong, admirable record, but one a little too patchy to fully realise the group’s ambitions.

7/10

“And all the birds fall out of the sky in two by twos / And my teeth fall out my head into the snow.”

25/02/13

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Posted on February 25, 2013, in The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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