Review Summary: The future seems a bit too much like what it used to be.
Of all the words thrown about after the release of Total Life Forever, "evolved" was one of the most constantly repeated. It was not misused either; the 2010 album, while certainly top-heavy, hit all the right notes and was tonally almost perfect. It seemed like Foals had determined exactly the kind of album they wanted to release, and it was noticeable. Equally noticeable is that lack of that aforementioned cohesiveness in Holy Fire. While from the first note, TLF set itself a tone and moved in the directions that, while keeping a strong degree of variation, complemented said tone, Holy Fire is extremely shaky in this regard. As a whole, the album has a bit of a mixtape feeling, like two sonically different albums fused haphazardly together. One is new, exciting, and unfortunately all-too-teasing, and the other is more of the same. Surprisingly, it seems that Foals are a bit too hesitant to leave the sound they've essentially perfected.
The intro, appropriately titled "Prelude", immediately creates a dark and eerie tension: the feeling that something massive and important is coming. While TLF's opener "Blue Blood" started off with the musical equivalent of drops of water, "Prelude" takes cues from Interpol's "Untitled" and possibly Anberlin's "(Debut)", built around swirling loops that effectively set the stage for a monumental album. The next track, lead single "Inhaler", seems to support that theory, as it jitters around and continues to build tension until it releases it all out in a stunning chorus unlike anything the band have ever released. It all seems to point to the new direction of the band, and if "Inhaler" is any indication, that's an exciting possibility. Unfortunately, this does not come to fruition. "My Number" begins with a classic Foals groove, and ends without indicating any growth at all. With slightly different production, it could be one of the tighter tracks on Total Life Forever, but coming at the end of that tense double punch, it seems like a jarring wakeup call that in the wake of their success, Foals aren't quite ready to move their sound completely forward yet.
That isn't to say that the songs on this are indistinguishable from the 2010 album, because to their credit the band have certainly expanded their sound. The guitar work is as excellent as ever, the drums are more prevalent and driving, and Phillipakis' voice (despite cracking a few times) is still great. New instruments like steel drums make appearances in a few songs, and the Beach House-esque "Milk and Black Spiders" combines them with a electronic beat to create a new sound, but the new sounds that Foals experiments with are often either not used enough, or feel out of place. The beginning of "Out of the Woods", especially coming on the heels of the album's beautiful centerpiece "Late Night", is just too self-indulgent and ends up sounding like the soundtrack to a Mario Kart level. While the songs sound painstakingly constructed - even the repetitive single-bait "Providence" features a bridge that should inspire countless audience members (and maybe even listeners) to jump and dance around - most of them are either tonally off or are just content to stick with what the band knows work.
Despite all this, the album is excellent, and will only disappoint fans of the band on the level of "what could have been". Fans of TLF will enjoy at least half of this album, as the bands is at least musically tighter than ever (despite being tonally all over the place). Listened to as a full album, Holy Fire may be disjointed, but there is a feeling of familiarity that overpowers any fatigue one might have with the sound, as no one does groovy, delay-pedal-infused indie rock quite like Foals. While the "grooves" get a bit repetitive, there's no band that does them better, and as Foals are happy on this album to simply flex their muscles, they may as well indulge their biggest strength. On Holy Fire, Foals have laid out their next direction clearly in front of them, and while they're content to tread water, at least they look good doing it.
Milk and Black Spiders