Review Summary: Holy Fire – the third time certainly is the charm. Here, Foals has successfully reconciled and transcended both their previous two ventures.
<sigh> Math Rock…..methinks the music media’s compulsive drive to sub-sub-subgenre everything has officially run amok. Math Rock, a term used to apparently pigeon-hole “complex, atypical rhythmic structures, counterpoint, odd time signatures, angular melodies, and extended, often dissonant, choruses” (according to Wikipedia), is pretty high on my *** list of meaningless and cringe-inducing subgenres. Granted, these qualities can make for some thrilling music within the confines of Pop/Rock, but why subjugate such diversity and innovation by throwing a silly sounding label onto it? Those poor fellas from Foals have had the discourtesy of being lumped into this unfortunate sounding silo – fortunately, they do their best to toss off the bindings of that label on Holy Fire.
Back in 2008, Foals fired a left-field shot in the Indie Rock world with their debut Antidotes. Quite the curious album, all the yelping over frantic, bashed-out rhythms, manic tempo changes, and copious fret-tapping, Antidotes was a catch-22. A welcome breath of fresh air to a scene that had stagnated a bit since the heady turn of the millennium days of The Strokes, the Libertines, and even Franz Ferdinand, it also seemed a claustrophobic proposition for the band themselves – with such an excitable, tightly-wound manifesto as their first strike, where would, or could, the band go next? Follow-up Total Life Forever did carry on elements of the debut, but in a much more subdued manner. This made for a more palatable, and not necessarily less enjoyable, album, but came across more as a transitional prospect rather than growth.
Ah, Holy Fire – the third time certainly is the charm. Good for Foals, for having already made their pivot with the last album, the band could have remained in the dreaded transition arc (i.e. The Strokes post-Room On Fire), lost their gumption and reverted back to the sound of the debut, or pressed through the transition and actually move forward. And what is forward? - forward to maturity and focus lacking in their debut and a more emotional connection with their listeners – something they navigated toward on Total Life Forever with their sound, but missed the mark on lyrically. Here, Foals has successfully reconciled and transcended both their previous two ventures.
In comparison to the oblique lyrical pursuits of the first two albums, Yannis strikes bold and deep emotional chords on Holy Fire. The album is riddled with first-person expressions of claustrophobia, loss, isolation, and a yearning for escape. Yannis repeatedly alludes to being “trapped,” “pulled down,” “falling,” and asking if he can be heard, if he will be remembered. Sonically, no doubt due to Flood’s presence at the soundboard here, the atmosphere hearkens to these feelings. “Late Night” feels custom built for late nights; Yannis truly seems as if he’s couched amongst the trees in “Out Of The Woods.” The polyrhythms and prickly guitar work from earlier pursuits is still here, but their edges have been smoothed with swaths of reverb and anchored by a massive low-end and monstrous hooks. Lead single “Inhaler” devolves into a scuzzy, swampy riff just at the point the song threatens to collapse in on itself; “My Number” emits a whiff of funk a la latter-day Afghan Whigs, and is easily as danceable as anything the Dance-Rock (argh) scene produces. Dipping prior albums’ charms in this newfound pool of tricks provides the perfect ebb to their flow. As thrilling as the manic Antidotes could be, compared to the pressure cooker rise and subsequent release of “Inhaler,” or the way Yannis’ guitar and vocals lock into the slow build groove on “Late Night,” the exploits of the debut feel all but empty.
Before we get completely frothy-mouthed, the album isn’t without shortcomings. “Providence” is certainly where the band most closely revisits Antidotes-like furor, but it ultimately feels hollow at its core. “Stepson” and “Moon”s sudden halt in tempo and, by comparison, nearly skeletal constructions are complete changes in direction; “Stepson” is a bit slight, but has some fine vocals, while “Moon” is a wonderfully spare and cryptic confrontation of apocalypse, but housing both back to back to close the album does produce a bit of an anti-climax to the whole proceedings. Lo, these seem nit-picking given the superior overall quality of the album. The album will certainly have its detractors – the widescreen production and reliance on hooks surely reeks of big league aspirations, prompting accusations of ”selling-out.” This is Indie-rock music snobbery - Holy Fire is easily the best new music these ears have heard in a while and is a crowning jewel of 2013′s already heady cache of new releases.
As the steely shimmers that coat the end of “Bad Habit” break, Yannis declares, “I made my mistakes…and I feel something’s changed.” Indeed…change is unmistakably here and wonderfully alive and well on Holy Fire.