Words Tom Spooner
Holy Fire is not a biblical bursting of energy, nor is it an epiphany a la’ Moses and his burning bush. It is nothing so dramatic. Yes, Foals have adopted a bigger, bolder sound but this record is about transition and not combustion.
Lyrically, it’s preoccupied with journeys; specifically the dual difficulties of orientation and navigation. There are songs about escaping the woods, about continuing on a path “step by aching step.” On Milk & Black Spiders, Yannis Philippakis sings: “You’re my compass and my sea,” a key metaphor that highlights the difficulties of trying to locate yourself both emotionally and geographically. And so it is that this sense of transition and struggle with finding direction is mirrored in Holy Fire’s confusion of textures.
It is clear that on their third album, the Oxford five-piece have targeted a wider audience. Holy Fire is undeniably a bid for the big time. It is interesting then, how they have chosen to go about it. Within each song they have attempted to bring together a number of disparate and seemingly incongruous elements within a stadium-rock package. Take Inhaler for example. In under five minutes, we are offered a dominant bassline groove, falsetto vocals, as well as 80s pop tropes and nu-metal riffery. Admittedly, it sounds dated, harping back to an ill-advised period of fusion in the late 90s where metal, dance and rock music came together, but this cross-pollination of genres just about works.
There is yet more evidence of a newly populist Foals. My Number is pure dancefloor fodder, thin on ideas but charmingly brazen in its sheer poppiness. Whereas Bad Habit, with its syncopated rhythms, post-rock-lite soaring guitars, is a melodic ballad in the same vein as Coldplay. Similarly Out of the Woods with its trendy marimba and Duran Duran chorus, and the glam-stomp of Providence whose final breakdown screams festival mosh-pit, are very much in vogue.
Foals’ trademark intricate math-y lines have been relegated in the mix, replaced by a fuller bass sound and heavier guitars employed repeatedly to usher in choruses with a predictable soft-loud dynamic. Yet this collection of tracks have every chance of achieving what they are designed to and may hook a wider audience.
However, on the rest of Holy Fire, Foals fail to amalgamate this diverse sonic armoury into songs that actually work. They try too hard, pack too much in. For all their busyness and techy play, there are a number of mid-tempo tracks that weigh the album down. Wading through the shifting rhythms and layered guitar of Everytime is tiring; the glitchy, moody Stepson buzzes and swells somberly enough but achieves nothing more than an atmosphere, a mood, and Milk & Black Spiders is about as edgy as its college-band title; going nowhere despite employing a house music build to shoehorn in some dynamism. At times, Holy Fire is reminiscent of the slow trudging of a childhood family walk when all you want to do is go home and play computer games.
Foals are at their most interesting when they experiment with the minimalist aesthetic of The XX. Late Night begins by moving in similarly sparse planes to Coexist, with muted beats, distant strings, and understated noodles of guitar. Sadly, any intriguing sonic shadow-play is soon forgotten as it descends into generic indie funk punctuated with disconcerting percussive pants. Failing to build on early promise, it goes from The XX to XXX, sounding like a hipster porn soundtrack. Closing track Moon is full of measured feedback and electronic fizzes again recalling The XX but also Brian Eno and Radiohead. It reintroduces the central theme of the isolated explorer, but this time they are trying to make sense of a lunar landscape pitted with dark lyrical craters.
So what we have with Holy Fire is a collection of up-tempo rockers, bass-driven and bouncy with a little aggro thrown in for the disaffected youth, a shimmy of 80s pop, a smidgen of late 90s nu-metal, and some appropriations of The XX’s sensual miserabilism. Sometimes all within one song. Gone is the skeletal funk of Antidotes, gone too is the sinewy Prog and muscular textures of Total Life Forever. Holy Fire is the sound of an intelligent band grown fat with ideas, succumbing to the processed lip-smacking, hand-clapping, lighter-waving allure of contemporary stadium rock. Holy Fire has variety and scope and might just succeed. Yet when Yannis sings, “I once was lost, now I am truly found”, it doesn’t ring true. Holy Fire is not evidence of a band that have found their sound, but one trying frantically to find it. For all its complexity, ambition and cross-genre meddling Holy Fire is not an arrival but a meander.