Kevin Camp, February 26, 2013
Listen: “My Number”
lthough it may seem obvious, it’s worth mentioning that the passage of time can bring about a number of changes in a band. When three-plus years go by between album releases, fans are sometimes at a loss for what to expect from the new material. I found myself in such a position with regards to Holy Fire. Foals is a group whose prior work includes scintillating minimalistic soundscapes like “Big Big Love (Fig. 2)” as well as groovy, rhythmic rock a la “Total Life Forever.” I like to think I’m relatively aware of where Foals came from and how exploratory their music has been. But these brief glimpses of past experimentation didn’t come close to preparing me for the multidimensional joyride that is Holy Fire.
The album features such a diverse range of sounds that it’s difficult to pin it down with any meaningful genre classification. As a whole, you could say it falls under the umbrella of “alternative rock.” But within that (broad) subgenre, Holy Fire’s songs strike off in vastly different musical directions. Two tracks in particular seem to stand out from the rest of the album. First, there’s “Inhaler.” It’s the band’s most full-bodied song to date, a fleshed-out arena rock banger. Second is “My Number.” I’ll try to be brief, although my feeling is that this song could merit an entire review in and of itself. At its core, “My Number” is Foals’ wholly unexpected foray into the realm of pop music. Any preconceptions about Foals’ sound and/or the band’s indie pretensions are essentially immaterial thanks to this particular track. It’s a pop song through and through – and a very good one at that. I can’t help but imagine a scenario in which “My Number” was the only Foals song a given individual had ever heard. That individual would have a much different, highly biased impression of the group relative to someone familiar with its other releases, past and present. And yet the song is so well done, indeed, so damn catchy, that I’m not in any way troubled by said scenario. It takes a great deal of skill and execution for a band to get this type of return from taking a chance on something so novel.
Stylistic complexity is but one of Holy Fire’s distinguishing features. Another is the overall mood that pervades the music, and serves as the common thread to tie all of the tracks together. This prevailing sentiment can best be characterized in terms of downright creepiness. It may not be immediately noticeable, but after several listens it becomes clear thatone or more elements of eeriness hang over all of Holy Fire’s songs. The band’s calculated choice of mood is revealed not only sonically, but also lyrically throughout the record. On “Moon,” lead singer Yannis Philippakis paints pictures that become increasingly macabre, crooning, “Million image, million capture, million dead,” and “My teeth fall out my head into the snow.” Mid-album standout “Out of the Woods” finds Philippakis awash with loneliness. He laments “All my friends are in the clouds.” “Prelude,” the album’s ever-building opener takes lyrical esotericism to the extreme. Its vocals are an effects-laden, deliberately haunting mix of unintelligible mumbles and shouts. Even the aforementioned standalone pop masterwork “My Number” isn’t immune to the funk of creepiness that hangs over its neighbors. The lyrics “Now the wolf is knocking at my door, Bang! Bang! It asks for more,” speak for themselves.
Much like the vocals, melodies on the record are crafted to convey foreboding feelings. Spacey and echo-filled, “Moon” is the musical manifestation of Philippakis’ previously described loneliness. “Late Night” features palm muted guitars and groovy rhythms that very specifically evoke the long instrumental sections of Phoenix’s “Love Like a Sunset.” However, the song is pointedly tinged with gloom thanks to an underlying string arrangement. Holy Fire’s creepiness may not be immediately noticeable, but if you dig deep enough it’s there practically every step of the way. Identifying it makes listening a much more interesting undertaking for the audience.
Three years has made a world of difference for Foals. Holy Fire is a much more polished, robust piece of work than anything the Oxford-based five-piece had previously churned out. This seems to be the album the group was destined to make. Its unique mood and consummate execution assuredly took a very specific vision, the kind that doesn’t appear overnight. Indeed, the record has raised the bar quite high for the band. Questions are bound to arise as to where Foals’ sound will go from here. But those are better addressed at a later date. For now the band should be content to revel in its haunting, transcendent masterpiece. Listeners beware.