Ever since the UK’s Foals came onto the radar of music listeners in North America, they displayed something interesting, a flare that set them apart from certain homogenous sounding groups in indie rock. With some of the members having mathematics backgrounds at Oxford University, it was easy for everyone to lump them into the indie and math-rock corner. 2008’s debut for the band, Antidotes showed complex guitar patterns paired with acute groove-packed drums topped with vocalist Yannis Philippakis‘ fun and poppy vocals. It was a great debut, which fit perfectly into the math-rock genre. Once their sophomore LP Total Life Forever came out, their categorization into math rock no longer applied. On their second LP, the band showed growth; they combined the guitar playing and driving drums of the first record with more contemporary arrangements. It was a bold step from the math-rock niche they had been pushed into, but a step that brought the band much further. On the groups new record Holy Fire, unique songwriting is mixed with a more introspective pursuit in the lyrics, making for a variable rollercoaster of danceable jams and emotional slow-burners. While Total Life Forever outlined progress in the groups songwriting abilities, Holy Fire takes this to a new level, standing as the groups most honest release yet.
One of the biggest changes to the groups sound on this record is their use of powerful, bass-heavy riffs. On the first single that was released from the record “Inhaler”, it begins with playful guitars and a strong drum beat, which were used to hearing from the group. Once the pre-chorus hits, the song begins to pick up tension until a loud and strong melody plays through the chorus while Yannis yells the lyrics. Though it’s unlike the groups previous material, the fun verses and this epic chorus transition surprisingly well. “Providence” is another track that houses a unusually heavy sound for the group, but these loud riffs are still using the same math-rock sensibilities that make their guitars so enjoyable. The track also presents a decent amount of variety on the guitars, with a beautiful bridge of syncopated strings and an epic ending complete with wailing riffs. It’s clear through songs like this that the group has made song structure a main focus for the record, with each song displaying a unique build or momentum. A couple examples of this include “Bad Habit” and “Milk and Black Spiders”, which both start softly and build into a grandiose climax until they swell down at the end.
The groups delicate structuring and powerful abilities are also clear on the quieter parts of the record as well. The track “Late Night” begins simply, with a gentle piano pattern laying the melody until each element gradually introduces itself in succession. The track continues to build momentum until it sounds less like a love ballad and more like one of the group’s louder tracks like “Inhaler”. Holy Fire also contains a fair amount of danceable rhythms and melodies, something that the group has been playing with since their first release. “My Number” is powered by a strong groove that makes it one of the bouncier tracks, as is the case with the equally danceable “Everytime”. Yet, with Foals’ wider focus on the elements of this record, these moments don’t appear in every track.
Some instruments that aren’t normally associated with Foals find their way onto this record as well. The song “Out of the Woods” makes use of a xylophone, which ties greatly with the clean tones used on the guitars, and a variety of synths and samples are used as well. On the album opener “Prelude”, Yannis’ own voice is sampled, providing an interesting synthetic feel to the song, as well as what sounds like a colony of bees that gets laid down toward the end of the song. Drum samples show up to lay down the beat on the melancholic single “Stepson”, as well as the upbeat and slightly more positive “Everytime” which help to add to the song in both cases. They’ve stepped out of a few comfort zones that limited their previous efforts and brought full and ambitious sound out of all these songs.
While Foals’ sophomore LP saw the group experiment with more contemporary and accessable sounds, Holy Fire sees a refined version of this through a series of well-structured stories. More emotion is present in the lyrics, songs are longer and a great deal of detail has been put into the flow of the record. The triumphant moments are equally balanced by introspective and deep moments, making for a thrill ride that is as enjoyable as it is compelling.