The evolution of Foals has been a fascinating one. On their 2008 debut album Antidotes, they no doubt attracted the attention of tastemakers because of their somewhat unique take on the dance rock genre, which was at a high point during that time period. While some critics would argue that their songs were poor imitations of leading bands at the time such as Bloc Party and Maximo Park, others felt the math rock guitars were crucial to setting them apart from their peers and bringing a fresh twist to an increasingly stale sound. It’s not hard to say that at the time Foals lacked a certain emotional maturity which in turn froze a lot of listeners out and prevented them from engaging with the songs in a deeper way. Big changes and improvements arrived on 2010’s Total Life Forever, which was more plainspoken and heartfelt, and frontman Yannis Philippakis proved he could actually carry a melody beyond uttering short, declarative phrases. The melodies also got larger in scope, moving slightly away from the intricacies of their debut and into a widescreen, power chord territory with hooks that grabbed hold of you like never before. It represented the exact right steps the band needed to make at the time, and their continued evolution earned them a newfound respect among fans and critics alike. They hadn’t so much sacrificed anything as they added to what was already there.
On what’s now their third official full length Holy Fire, Foals once again push forward and work hard to grow in sound and stature. They take the best parts of their previous work and appear to commit to try and fix their previous flaws. Philippakis continues to grow as both a singer and a songwriter. He stretches himself vocally on this album more than ever before, and the payoffs are pretty exhilarating. The opening instrumental, appropriately dubbed “Prelude,” provides some nice ebbs and flows but still doesn’t quite prepare you for the track that immediately follows it. “Inhaler” has a late-90s alternative rock vibe going for it, which means there’s a certain amount of malice and bad intentions running like an undercurrent through the duration of the track. Sooner or later, the dark, masked feelings build up and require release, leading to the explosive chorus you don’t necessarily anticipate arriving until it lands. “I can’t get enough SPACE!” Philippakis yells into a seemingly endless void as the fuzz pedals and power chords drive his point home with all the force of a battering ram. It’s a cathartic, exciting and memorable moment early on in a record that winds up having a bunch of them. None quite operate on the same level as “Inhaler” when it comes to overall aggression, however most are equally as fun and addictive.
Chief among the many catchy songs on Holy Fire is the single “My Number,” a track that finds Foals in the purest of pop modes with a chorus that stays with you like it’s etched inside your brain. It’s easy to envision the song becoming a monstrosity of a hit in their live shows, and the video for it doesn’t do anything to dispel that notion. That’s really just the start of a great run of smart and effective tracks that include “Everytime” and “Bad Habit,” both serving as great reminders that while the song structures are very familiar and the hooks are intensely strong, there’s enough distinction in the intricate guitar work and vocals to set Foals apart from any similar-sounding peers. On Total Life Forever there were hints of this very broad yet indistinct stadium-sized band bubbling underneath the surface of some songs trying to wrestle control away from some of the more charming quirks that have earned them a decent amount of respect over the years. That they chose to avoid giving in to those impulses and occasionally push some experimental buttons is heartening and a great sign for their future.
Such experiments enter into play during much of the second half of Holy Fire, which is a little slower and less pop-driven yet compelling in its own unique way. On their previous albums, Foals have proven themselves relatively adept at the slow build in songs, turning otherwise innocuous ballads or mid-tempo numbers into hot-blooded explosions of noise or genuine rave-ups. When done properly, it can leave the listener exhilarated. In that sense, tracks like “Late Night” and “Milk & Black Spiders” are two of the best slow build tracks the band have ever put together, and that is a great sign of their growth and maturity these last few years. “Providence” plays off a similar template, though instead of moving from slow to fast it evolves from a dance track to a muscular rock song. You could well call it the Side B cousin of “Inhaler” from Side A. The band’s energy peters out in the final two cuts “Stepson” and “Moon,” coming across like the overcast sky beginning to show signs of daylight after a long night partying. The smile fades from your face as suddenly it’s time to come back to earth after the dizzying highs you’ve been experiencing the last few hours. This bout of sincerity and sadness feels earned and rightly placed at the end of the record, holding Foals in formation as a well-rounded band instead of a lopsided one. Perhaps the biggest fault with Total Life Forever was how its attempt at true balance led to a front-loaded bipolarity that sank like a stone halfway through. Thanks to a couple late album injections of energy though, this new album feels balanced in a much smarter fashion and makes the replay value that much higher. It’s fantastic to hear that Foals have learned this and many other lessons for Holy Fire, and with any luck they won’t forget them ever again.