The hottest music from Chicago & beyond

Tag: math rock

Album Review: Foals – Holy Fire [Warner Bros/Transgressive]

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.

Buy Holy Fire from Amazon

Album Review: Minus the Bear – Infinity Overhead [Dangerbird]

And now, a brief evolutionary history of Minus the Bear. When they first emerged in the early ’00s, they were a goofy math rock band whose twisted finger tapping guitar style and oft-hilarious song titles were considered endearing. On 2005’s Menos El Oso, they matured to the point where their goofy song titles and lighthearted bounce were replaced with sincerity and precision. Though it didn’t always feel right, people did start to treat the band with more respect, which they took and ran with. 2007’s Planet of Ice was a calmer attempt to broaden their sound with more prog-rock elements and dashes of electronics. It was beautiful but failed to fully engage the listener. That only got worse in 2010 with Omni, a synth-heavy record that moved away from their signature guitar sound in favor of something that sounded overproduced and an attempt at commercial success. Whether or not the strategy worked is debatable, because while their record sales went up, they were also signed to a better label with a better promotional team.

After four full-lengths of varying quality, Minus the Bear seem to have settled down on their fifth record Infinity Overhead. The dominant synths of Omni have all but vanished, as have some of the more atmospheric and progressive pieces of Planet of Ice. Their guitars are back in full force, and the finger tapping math rock style returns too, though with a bit less emphasis than some of their earlier material. Listen closely to “Toska” and “Cold Company” for some of the most impressive instrumental work they’ve ever done. That you have to listen closely at all is evidence of how Minus the Bear have changed over the course of their career. They’re in no way returning to their carefree and goofy early days, and whether or not you view that as a good thing, it makes their music more difficult to penetrate.

There are rewards to be found in listening to Infinity Overhead several times as the songs slowly begin to grow on you. “Lies and Eyes” and “Diamond Lightning” in particular start to stand out the longer you live with them. They’re also two tracks that probably best blend the various elements and styles the band has adopted over the last decade, which is in a sense a good way of hearing exactly how they’ve grown. The retrospective aspect is nice, but you also come to realize that this record doesn’t venture any place new. Say what you will about Omni, but at least that was one of Minus the Bear’s attempts to shake things up a little.

To think that they’re sitting in a stalled out vehicle here is a little disappointing, as are most of the tracks on the album, most of which have all the distinctiveness of wallpaper. Moreover, the band simply sounds bored most of the time, or at least are approaching these songs with such extreme seriousness that they’re suffocated by it. If they want to get all stonefaced about their music, there needs to be passion in making it that seeps through to the listener. Infinity Overhead is more often than not a joyless business transaction, and coming from a band that once created vital songs with hilarious titles like “Thanks For The Killer Game of Crisco Twister” and “Just Kickin’ It Like a Wild Donkey,” that’s perhaps most disappointing of all.

Minus the Bear – Steel And Blood

Buy Infinity Overhead from Amazon

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén