Foals were once the nation’s hottest hype band. In 2006 and 2007 they were perfection itself. A mysterious too-clever-by-half band who played with their backs to the sweat soaked bars and the cramped tents their adoring acolytes had squeezed into. Teenagers screamed “shine like millions” right on cue, every night, without failure for 12 months as the music press whipped themselves into a frenzy. The moment couldn’t last forever. Antidotes arrived in 2008 and the band’s most doting admirer (NME) wrote a full page review that read like a long form apology for getting everyone a little too excited before concluding:
“Let reviewers remind everyone Radiohead’s first album was not ‘The Bends’ but ‘Pablo Honey’. Alert everyone to your potential but don’t fulfil it. Remain enigmatic while firing out enough tuff rhythms to keep us dancing. Textbook stuff from the Oxford fivesome, then.”
Foals, who by all accounts released a high enjoyable debut album, were tarnished. Burdened with the potential to create something brilliant they existed between the bottom and the top. Too talented to burn out and fade away, but too obstinate for superstardom. Total Life Forever and the band’s undeniable career best release “Spanish Sahara” didn’t so much restore faith, as enshrine Foals as a left of centre institution who had one foot on the populist pages of the NME and the other entrenched in Pitchfork’s cozy critical cove.
After a decidedly gloomy fallow period guitar music is beginning to poke its head above the water. Biffy Clyro, The Vaccines and Mumford & Sons are making success look easy and, like clockwork, Foals are back: ready to rekindle the old fires with a new album and a brilliant lead single. “Inhaler” feels as imperious today as it did four months ago when it first came crashing through your speakers. It feels like a concession, a tacit invitation, and a cock tease all at once. Yannis finally marries the gorgeously subdued atmospherics of Total Life Forever and the pent up frustration of Antidotes into one bruising and muscular arena-sized-onslaught.
The entire gesture oozes braggadocio, as if Foals are staring the listener dead in the eye and coolly whispering: “so yeah, turns out we can incite a riot whenever we want, we just have to snap our fingers and get to work”. They don’t of course, that’d be too easy, and too much fun. “Inhaler” remains sadly singular.
Holy Fire divides evenly into two halves. The first half which includes the spritely loose-hipped grooves of “My Number” and the effortlessly anthemic “Everytime” sees Foals beefing up their typically slight sound. The niggling pitter-patter percussion remains in place and the florid guitar lines, which once shone in the foreground, now play second fiddle to Yannis’ inescapable hooks and decidedly accessible vocals. This is Foals at their least skittish. Muscularity and sincerity are the key. The mix is thicker than ever before: the odd quirks that previously provided structure, dynamism and the hook for practically every Foals’ track are now simply the daring flourishes and distinctive accents designed to compliment a great whole. So far so good.
The album’s centrepiece and momentum stifling moment comes in the form of “Late Night” and “Out Of The Woods”. Two mood pieces (Foals don’t quite do ballads), which in turn mix clunky lyricism with throat shredding emotion, and paint-by-numbers post-Joy Division gloom with stirring cathartic swells. “Late Night” has the worst lines but the grandest sweep, while “Out Of The Woods” offers a far more vibrant arrangement and a more endearing less knowing side to Yannis’ songwriting without conjuring any real impetus. Neither track fails. Neither track truly succeeds.
From that point on Holy Fire lives and dies with Yannis as a series of measured mood pieces ensue. “Milk & Black Spiders” is the pick of the bunch. It’s a direct and oddly fearless offering from a band often couched in their own too-clever-to-commit garb. By comparison “Providence”, “Stepson” and “Moon” are middling and even tepid efforts that are intermittently tuneless, lyrically contrived and moribund without ever actually succumbing to outright awfulness.
Holy Fire is a bold step in the right direction. Foals sound grander and more vital than ever before. By opening up and putting his vocals at the forefront Yannis may have exposed his songwriting deficiencies, but he has ultimately paved the way for greater success. Equally, Foals still haven’t found the magic formula to write anthems without hooks, tunes without melodies, and ballads as instrumental meditations (i.e. ballads without the actual balladeer), but they have upped their game immeasurably. Foals and Holy Fire are a serious proposition, despite their flaws.
Buy If: you ready for a meaty more impactful Foals
Skip If: Yannis really grinds your gears
Best Track: “Inhaler”
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