words by BEN BROCK WILKES
According to a mid-week update from UK’s Official Album Charts, Foals’ February 11, 2013 release Holy Fire is out-selling both the soundtrack for Les Miserables and Fleetwood Mac’s re-issue of Rumours, and is poised to enter the British charts at #1 this weekend. I must say I’m impressed with the UK record purchasing populous, or maybe just jealous because across the pond we’re stuck with Josh Groban at #1 and NOW 45 at #3. Regardless, such success speaks to Holy Fire’s striking pop immediacy. What’s more impressive however, is how this sharp accessibility is achieved with funk-rich anthems that are both massive in sound and quirky in temperament.
Holy Fire is Foals’ third full-length release, and their sonic character has become almost unrecognizable from the tight corners and adolescent wit of their first, Antidotes. Surely this is the time that we begin to discuss words like “maturity.” What I’ll say is that Foals has grown into the sound they seem most confident and comfortable in. In that way, Holy Fire is Foals’ most honest work to date. For a lot of rock bands–especially those with punk or math inclinations–channeling the frenetic and frustrated nature of youth into more subtle and complex emotions is what the battle for “maturity” is all about. Given nuggets like the absolutely stunning third minute of “Milk & Black Spiders,” Foals has learned to calmly deliver packages of dynamite, delicate and volatile.
Foals has taken their knack for clever song-craft and created an album chock-full of fat, epic builds and soaring hot-air-balloon choruses. Masters of tension and release, almost every song has one of those head bang (or fist pump for that matter)-inducing moments of delicious pop ecstasy akin to electronic music’s “drop.” “Everytime” has a bass-heavy build into the final shimmering chorus at 2:50 that is nothing short of intoxicating. Likewise on “Late Night,” the band displays a marked talent for the pre-chorus, making every hook hit you in the gut like a tightly balled fist. From 2:30 to 3:45 on the aforementioned track is one of the best executed of these steady, articulate climaxes.
Holy Fire moves through a diverse set of sounds: “Inhaler”—the first single—weaves fearless guitar riffing into its sonic layers with a breakdown at 1:50 reminiscent of Tom Morello in his heyday; the smooth new wave jam “Out of the Woods” has a marimba melody that echoes an almost traditional-Chinese motif laid out by previous pedal delays on “Inhaler” and “My Number;” “Moon” closes the record with a sultry, ambient outro glistening with tap harmonics. Foals pulls off this genre hopping with the guidance and wise pop production techniques of the storied duo Flood (U2, Nick Cave, Sigur Rós) and Alan Moulder (The Killers, Depeche Mode, Smashing Pumpkins). The drum fade-in at 1:00 on “Late Night” and classic stringed orchestra to emphasize the final chorus on “My Number” are examples of how hooks are tastefully seasoned with skillful studio production throughout the record.
The lyrics of Yannis Philippakis, Foals’ lead singer, mirror the growth of the band itself. He plays with ideas of self-deprecation alongside self-assuredness in a way that isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, but strikes a powerful chord with anyone who’s been in a difficult personal relationship. On “Inhaler,” Philippakis sings “I’m pale and coy, a mama’s boy / I make believe / I shimmy-shake, I wake and bake / I’m over me” in the same verse as “You push and shove, I’ve had enough / don’t mess with me.” The directness of his lyricism is what’s most rewarding, frequently addressing the subject of his simultaneous love and hate with personal pronouns. Fittingly, Foals drops the indie trend of effected vocals to the point of indecipherability in favor of clean, arena-style recordings that wear Philippakis’ talented voice on their sleeve.
“My Number,” the dance-hall gem I’d venture to guess will get the most airplay on the radio and at bars or parties, has Philippakis casting aside his doubts in true pop-star fashion, “You don’t have my number / we don’t need each other now / we don’t need the city, the creed or the culture now / cause I feel alive.” He’s obviously conflicted though, because as the album develops, we find ourselves hearing on “Milk & Black Spiders,” “I’ve been around two times and found that you’re the only thing I need.” This could be a veiled religious reference, but I doubt it, as the You has remained fairly consistent throughout, and the following track “Providence” has Yannis howling, “I’m an animal just like you…I’ll bleed just like you.”
Patience is indeed a virtue: at the same time that Foals’ Holy Fire takes its time to develop giant-slaying hooks, the album rewards repeated listens. It is rich with auditory playgrounds of layered guitar and organic sounds—the band brought bees and flies into the studio to sample, encouraged to exist outside of the urban sound space when working with Jagwar Ma in Australia. The record’s hooks are different than those of many pop songs; instead of slowly tiring with each listen, they seem to grow with intensity when you dive deeper into them, as if peeling off layers of an onion to get to that potent, tear-jerking core. With Holy Fire, Foals have found an emotive balance between bitter and sweet, the army of pop and the avant-garde, and keep us peeling back layers to an onion we’re all searching for the center of. [B+]
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