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Foals - Holy Fire

 Holy Fire on Spotify

It was early February 2011, at the Sydney International Airport arrivals gate C, when I first experienced the true essence of Foals. My girlfriend was returning from a 3 month trip, and I was enduring that maddeningly drawn out time between the flight landing and her clearing customs. On the advice of a friend I'd had Total Life Forever sitting idly on my iPod for months, unplayed. They didn't appeal to me. Math rock? Please.. Isn't that just another term for 'hipster garbage'? Well on this occasion I decided I had some time to kill, so I pressed play on Blue Blood and settled in.

Now it must be stressed that going three months without my girlfriend was a difficult task. It goes without saying that I'd built this moment, finally seeing her, up over the months to the point it was meant to be the greatest thing in the history of my entire life. I was desperate to see her walking down that ramp. I was desperate to see her and to feel her and have her presence, Skype can be so cold. With all this in mind, the fact that I didn't see her till she was about 7 metres from me can not be overstated.

You see, I'd fallen for Foals. Total Life Forever is beautiful. The whole album opens itself and embraces you, you rest your mind in it's comforting arms. Spanish Sahara is beauty, it's reminiscent of the perfect orgasm, it starts off slow and gentle and builds higher than you can imagine, before exploding in to joy. This Orient melds pop purity with an anthemic quality that instills an instant elevated mood. The whole record flows perfectly.

So Holy Fire has shoes to fill. And I think Foals are well aware that they've ascended the staircase of British alternative music and entered the hallowed halls of royalty, rubbing shoulders with the countless great bands that inhabit these upper echelons. Simply put, there was pressure. The way they seem to have dealt with this is what I can now call the 'Muse' approach. Increase intensity, add aggression, make the record LOUDER. It starts curiously, the initial 2 minutes actually bring to mind Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose's brilliant soundtrack to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Darker, danker, much more menacing than anything I've heard from them. Those dirty guitars enter and it feels like an aggressive, beasting track. It sets the tone for the entire record. Where Foals previous two albums have sounded light, airey, even dainty at times, this has much more substance to it, a sound rooted much deeper in Funk Rock, a genre largely discarded save for a few very high profile resuscitation jobs. That's not to say their overall objective has changed dramatically. Holy Fire feels much rawer, most bands usually release their less restrained work at the beginning of their career but here Foals revert to the 90s Grunge epidemic and channel their inner teenage selves. It's a brilliant contrast to Total Life Forever and Antidotes.

Inhaler enforces this. Philippakis sings sweetly over a dirty bass groove and some inspired skin slapping
'Sticks and stones don’t break my bones, you make believe
It’s lock and load, it’s a dead end road to you and me'
Bloc Party levels of teenage-ism. But there is a reason this is the lead-off single, as Yannis hurls the bridge at us and those guitars explode in to the chorus, you're entranced. It's a hulking track, it leaps at you. No energy is lost as it bleeds straight in to second single My Number, one of the best tracks on the record. Slipping back in to Foals 'mode', but with dialled-in pop savviness, the song is at times quaint but still feels strong, propelled yet again by the presence of a teflon bass line. It's got that perfect pop quality - the first time you hear it, you feel as if you already know it, and it's like slipping in to an old pair of jeans. You won't tire of it.

The success of the brilliant Spanish Sahara has, however, cast a small shadow over this album. Personally, I don't think Holy Fire needs a similar moment. Late Night feels as though they sat down and attempted to write part 2, and unfortunately it lacks imagination and feels slightly forced. It serves well as an interlude, but Philippakis' straining voice doesn't endear, and his pleas of 'Stay with me' sound out of place on a Doors-esque groove of a track. Milk & Black Spiders actually achieves their 'Spanish Sahara' moment in a much more natural fashion. The lyrics are uncomplicated, 'Cause I've been around two times and found that you're the only thing I need', the strings perfectly complementing the mood that Philippakis is conjuring. Those delicate riffs don't encroach, they complement perfectly, and the percussion builds brilliantly, you feel it coming a minute out and the explosion of string, riff and drumming melds perfectly for the burst in to sunlight moment that was so perfect on Spanish Sahara.

The charming quality Foals have carried through is their lack of pretention. I hate to revisit it, but a lot of bands in this 'genre', although I dislike the umbrella term Math Rock, have a tendency to take themselves very seriously. This is an indie pop release, but there are no exclusion moments. There are no attempts to preach a higher order, or to worship at the alter of Radiohead. Catchiness is an unavoidable symptom of all work they do, and it is a quality that is embraced rather than contained. It gives rise to some excellent music. Providence extends the tendency towards heavier music, channeling Kings Of Leon's southern roots in a thumping aggressive romp through Philippakis' primal leanings. Those pesky Foals riffs prevail until the three minute mark when some frenetic drumming gives way to a tremendous thump as the bass grunts and drops its testicles, the whole song then throbs dramatically through a jam session that I hope will be extended during live shows. There is still that inherent gift for melody melded in though, the song would not be out of depth on mainstream radio.

Funnily enough, Out Of The Woods is the most listenable, and in my mind, bankable, song on the record. It settles comfortably in to another rhythm created by a simple bass line, an off kilter drum and a highly plucked riff, and Yannis delivers his most personal performance.
'It's times like these when I'm on my way out of the woods,
Never felt better than when I'm on my way out for good'
Gives way to
'It was just a dream,
The most beautiful place I've seen.'
A dream snatched. It's the most pessimistic I've heard him. You're built up through a lovely melody and groove, Yannis details his delight at finding happiness from darkness, and snatches it all back. It's a theme continued on the final two tracks, Moon and Stepson, both a haunting description of a depressed, down-trodden mind struggling to maintain a positive relationship. Yannis observes his own descent and recalls it for us, describing his surroundings over surprisingly morose music. Such an odd contrast to finish the record on. An extremely potent one. The air, the aggression, the upbeat atmosphere is not just dissolved but destroyed by these two brilliant burning songs that sap the life out of you as a listener. It's an odd one but again, potent, and quite skillful. A problematic way to leave an album, but a definitive conclusion.

8/10. So. I wrote recently I hope this record isn't in the top 10 of 2013. It is excellent, but not brilliant. It lacks the beauty of Total Life Forever, instead replacing it with strength and aggression, two traits I didn't expect on a Foals record. It's insanely listenable, you will find yourself reaching for it again and again, and it houses some perfectly sorted pop songs and deeper moment that don't feel contrived or tacked on. Overall an excellent release. Foals continue to enhance their reputation.

Best Tracks:  Out Of The Woods, Inhaler, Milk & Black Spiders, My Number

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