The opening moments of Holy Fire are nothing like those of Foals’ earlier works. The febrile swagger remains, but within is something much darker, tenser, and unsettling. Its as if “Prelude” is trying to erase Total Life Forever from your memory. As Holy Fire progresses however, its predecessor begins to feel less like an artifact and more like a stepping stone.
Back in 2008, Foals moved from their native Oxford to New York to record their debut album. The hype was rancid at this point, but if there was one thing Foals believed in, it was themselves. Granted, Antidotes wasn’t exactly a barnburner, but is was easy to chalk this up to youthful brashness. The talent was there, but the songs themselves played like more a symptom of their inexperience, which subsided as they grew and filled out their frame. Total Life Forever was a partially fulfilled promise, achieving excellence in fits and starts. It managed to make a case that they were on the cusp of greatness. As its title might imply, Foals undoubtedly believe that with Holy Fire, they are ready to deliver fully on that promise. They have expanded their sound tremendously here, perhaps a little too much so. Their desire to climb a few rungs on the ladder has resulted in their biggest, most eclectic set yet, with weighty and self-serious transitioning into fluffy and fun without hesitation. Holy Fire dabbles in a little bit of everything, and this ends up as both a strength and a weakness.
Over the first three tracks, Foals showcase three different sides of their personality, the common thread being versatility. Pivoting lead single “Inhaler” between the gaping, chilling “Prelude” with the breezy, plush pop of “My Number” is about as smooth as placing Interpol, Jane’s Addiction, and Cut Copy in succession on a playlist. Following the opening trio is “Bad Habit”, which is a song they’ve worked towards for years. The chorus, the most shamelessly colossal one the band has ever written, begs to ring out from within the walls of Wembley. It barely sidesteps overt sentimentality, lifting tricks from the playbooks of Coldplay and U2.
The most distinctive element of Foals’ sound is again the guitar work, though the mathiness has all but evaporated. In the place of cerebral noodling, guitarists Yannis Philippakis and Jimmy Smith sputter and twitch in a stately, almost clinical way. Their fretwork provides Holy Fire’s most dependable thrills, building to ecstatic highs on the highlight “Milk & Black Spiders” and thrusting with ungainly force on “Providence.” Their range isn’t so much broadened as maintained, with new sounds like strings and synthesizers floating around the edges for emphasis.
But for all these flashes of exhilaration, Holy Fire remains an uneven work. The sequencing is questionable, as evidenced by the ultimate and penultimate tracks “Moon” and “Stepson.” They’re both soft and woozy, and in keeping with the peak/end rule, the record fizzles out. Their third effort has proven a lot, yet it feels more like an investment in the future than a work of instant gratification. It lacks a genuine peak like “Spanish Sahara” or “Balloons,” but it achieves greater consistency elementally, if not tonally. Above all, Holy Fire is a restless soul; the number of doors it has opened for Foals is perhaps its greatest achievement.