by Rob Wilson & Michael Clark
It wouldn’t be so far from the truth to suggest that Foals are becoming something of a household name in the UK. Despite only registering three top 40 singles in their eight years together, Foals have managed to produce two top 10 albums and secure a Mercury Prize nomination for their 2010 release Total Life Forever, as well as holding the status as an NME poster-child for British indie-rock since their first album Antidotes. It appears this is something the band is well aware of, as their third album, Holy Fire, sees them attempt to take that next, and perhaps final, step closer to out-and-out rock stardom and put them on a level with, say, Muse and Biffy Clyro.
Back in October, after two years of virtual silence, Foals finally got around to releasing some new material in the shape of promotional single ‘Inhaler’. This song could be seen as something of surprising approach by Foals’ standards, as they swapped their usually complex, plucked riffs for stadium filling distorted guitars and borderline screamed vocals from lead singer Yannis Philippakis that had them sounding more like Muse in their pomp rather than the five weird kids from Oxford that we heard on Antidotes.
Now, it’s fair to say that Foals aren’t afraid to mix things up a bit. They’ve incorporated alternative styles of rock and dance in the past, combining catchy beats with their penchant for raw energy and almost water-like riffs in terms of texture. If you cast your mind back a few months to Everything Everything’s second album Arc, you’ll have heard a band struggling to deal with their almost volcanic creativity – but Foals have always sounded on the cusp of something wonderful and firmly in control of their ideas, rather than confused and in awe of themselves like Everything Everything. But after eight years, it appears Foals still can’t quite make that final baby-step from being the cusp of something wonderful to actually being something wonderful. It appears that being so headstrong in terms of their ideas has become somewhat of a hindrance for Foals.
With ‘Inhaler’, Foals did more than just touch on new ground. The power behind the chorus of that single had them sounding so huge, so raw, so visceral (an image complemented by unusual imagery in the promotional release’s video of people throwing up). But it’s Holy Fire’s four-minute ‘Prelude’ that opens things up where the album itself is concerned. It tries its best to work as an introduction to the album, but is far too long and far too dull, and certainly doesn’t live up to its expectations as an opener. The xx’s stunning ‘Intro’ from their 2009 debut album, xx, does twice as much as Foals’ ‘Prelude’ in half the time (‘Intro’s simple guitar riff has actually been sampled by American singer Rihanna for her song ‘Drunk On Love’).
On the other side of ‘Inhaler’ is second single ‘My Number’, a wonderful combination of Foals’ knack for creating danceable grooves with delicate instrumentation which leaves Foals sounding at their most assured and most confident.. A strong, determined, driving riff rolls into each next bar with ease as a typically Foals guitar-lead hook dances hand-in-hand with grouped vocals, chanting a story of independence. But it’s after this spot that we begin to realise that Holy Fire has Foals standing still on the edge of something wonderful, looking out from the top of the cliff and into the ocean, fearing to take the plunge.
If there’s ten seconds on Holy Fire that explains that image then it has to be the introduction to track four, ‘Bad Habit’. A metallic beat clunks in, hinting at a continuation of Foals’ more experimental nature, but what it eventually becomes is somewhat ill-judged. ‘Bad Habit’ is far, far away from being a bad song, but its impact is minimal – and after feeling such an hit impact from ‘My Number’, ‘Bad Habit’s placement begins work against it – which isn’t what you need when you need to keep the attention of the listener as Holy Fire begins to settle down. If anything, this begins a disappointing series of tracks that are too glossy, mellow and “safe” for their own good. The tracks that run between ‘Bad Habit’ and ‘Milk & Black Spiders’ don’t really see much variety in approach or delivery. The band sits within their comfort zone, never deviating far away from similar styles to what we’ve heard before.
While Holy Fire is prevented from becoming dull by focusing on instrumental variation in terms of equipment used, the entire middle section of Holy Fire sounds almost devoid of energy. There’s the occasional attempt at a huge climax, but it always remains wanting, never quite reaching where it should. To combat this, Foals open their old box of tricks to keep things ticking over. Foals always manage to seem incredibly comfortable and assured when they knock something out, finish it and draw a line under it without saying anything else. And ‘Providence’ is perfect evidence of this. An irregular 7/4 time signature keeps Foals tight and crisp, while the guitars sound raw and full of that old Foals’ energy – something Holy Fire lacks, or doesn’t quite reach often enough.
And while the two closing tracks, ‘Stepson’ and ‘Moon’, are certainly creative and ambitious in places – like most of Holy Fire – they don’t tend to feel like they want to break on anything that Foals’ are yet to touch on – again, like most of Holy Fire – and everything that was shouted about on ‘Inhaler’ and ‘My Number’ seems a distant memory as ‘Moon’ fades away into silence. Holy Fire – while showcasing Foals at their most assured and ambitious – has almost certainly left room for more, and has given Foals’ a platform on which to build, so that they can step away from the safety of the land and into the depths of the ocean that awaits them.
At frequent points on Holy Fire, Foals seem unstoppable in terms of creativity, but at other times, and perhaps too often, they seem to be content with playing it safe with regards to adding the odd spice here and there. Where there could be a huge breakdown, akin to ‘Inhaler’, there’s a huge, glossy string section waiting to weep over the mix instead, which is a little bit of a shame. For an album that begins with plenty of promise, it fades slowly into same-old, same-old. Same-old, same-old by Foals’ standards is still ambitious, enjoyable, creative and catchy – and boy is Holy Fire catchy – but it could be so much more. Foals sound ready to jump into the ocean; it’s just a matter of motivation.