With Antidotes, their 2008 debut, Oxford quintet Foals announced that yes, here they were, another one of those distinctively British indie bands, the kind that specialize in high-energy, thick-accented dance punk (see: Bloc Party). But on their sophomore release, 2010’s Total Life Forever, Foals began to come into their own. They learned, for the most part, how to synthesize their frenetic impulses into more cogent song structures, and their music started to sound like it belonged more to Foals than to any of the number of genres or subgenres that had previously been used to define their sound. Total Life Forever’s songs were given more room to breathe, were developed with more patience and restraint and—falling in line with the album’s Nevermind-esque cover art—exhibited a unifying, atmospheric sense of the aqueous. All that unified Antidotes was singer Yannis Philippakis’ yipping Brit voice.
Foals’ third album, Holy Fire, doesn’t mark as dramatic of a leap, but it’s a leap nonetheless (albiet a little more of a lateral one this time). The most obvious change is apparent immediately in “Prelude,” and that is that this album rocks. As indicated by the ominous, almost apocalyptic cover art, Holy Fire is far darker and heavier than either of Foals’ benign previous efforts. Philippakis’ vocals often take a sinister turn, distortion plays a major role, and the drumming and guitar work are more aggressive. This plunge to the dark side culminates with “Providence,” the second side’s best track and easily the most uncharacteristically “Foals” song Foals has written. After a sparse, foreboding intro in which Philippakis repeats “I’m an animal just like you” as if it’s some demonic mantra, the song gathers steam before reaching a genuinely startling climax that sees all the instrumentation exploding into overdrive simultaneously, a firework finale from hell. When compared with Antidotes, it’s hard to believe this is even the same band (or that Philippakis wasn’t possessed somewhere along the way).
Despite the significant thematic shift, though, Foals still sound like Foals. Standout single “My Number” is a tightly wrought, high-energy dance number that sounds like a more mature version of something that would have appeared on Antidotes. They’ve also continued to employ a lot of the dramatic, anthemic buildups introduced on Total Life Forever, most notably on “Late Night,” which stands alongside “My Number” and “Providence” as one of the album’s best tracks. In it, Philippakis sings with a previously unheard vulnerability, which slowly builds to a not-too-ostentatious climax accented by pleasingly spare but moving instrumentation. The bass line and intermittent guitar licks are catchy and given ample room to resonate, as is the emotion in Philippakis’ voice.
But for every “My Number” and “Late Night,” there are songs that attempt to pull off similar feats but fall flat, either by overindulging production-wise to spice things up that otherwise aren’t very interesting, or by adding layers of effects where they simply aren’t necessary. As a whole, Holy Fire is a bold effort from Foals, but like on Total Life Forever, there are few clear standout tracks admist a lot forgettable mood-setting filler. It’s clear that Foals aren’t really all the way there in terms of striking the right balance between their propensity for layers of noise and the thoughtfulness they’ve attempted to cultivate on Total Life Forever and now Holy Fire, but they’ve certainly come a long way.