Even from the artwork adorning Foals’ third full-length, Holy Fire, a momentous sense of occasion builds: since emerging from the erudite confines of Oxford’s Blessing Force microcosm in kind, they’ve gone on to gallivant through the verdant pastures of the world’s four corners – enlightening with their music, and educating with their penchant for the acutely mathematical. Though having navigated the repeatedly purported difficult second album syndrome with if not flying colours, then the deep blue of Total Life Forever they now clip and a-clop into Holy Fire – a further baptism. A herd carrying cloaked nomads riding bareback emerge from the white horses of a sunset-bedaubed sea, the gaze of all immovably glued to the dwindling glare of the sun. There’s a sense of journey lucidly involved. The question to be posed, therefore, is whether another chapter is but beginning, or whether an altogether converse conclusion has now been reached.
Contrary to perhaps more popular beliefs – those which have seen Yannis Philippakis transmogrified into a form of mythic demigod, whose Hummer; his Balloons; his steadfast accomplice Cassius have all been eulogised equivalently – I’ve always deemed Foals to be an album band. Antidotes, cohesive as most commonly available plasters, was a triumphant nostrum to the nondescript indie schmindie schtick of the latter naughties while although less successful from a wholly subjective stance, Total Life Forever so too was an involving enough listen to dip into time after time. Granted its time wore thin rather more swiftly than it took for Antidotes to eventually wear off, but despite the acclaim garnered by their applicable singles these were compositional pieces best showered in whole. And so we come to bathe in Holy Fire…
Given the above paragraph, I resolutely elected not to give into temptation nor intrigue and decided against airing either of Inhaler or My Number before they could be fully contextualised by the remainder of the record. Which renders the proggy, claustrophobic slow-build maelstrom that is Prelude that bit more blue even than Total Life Forever in that bolt from respect. It sounds sort of like dad rock – the sort which is cushioned by the concrete walls of soulless stadia worldwide – which resounds somewhat bizarrely, not least given that the album’s press release comprises a detailed list of the age of each of the band’s individual members. (Both median and modal averages come out at the fresh figure of 28.) Though stranger still is when Yannis et al. dizzyingly spin the entire thing on its head, gradually working up to the point at which the meticulously crafted ambience positively erupts in a thrash of abrasive distortion. The humid closeness does soon return however, as Jimmy Smith’s intricate guitar work weaves itself a nitty, punctilious mesh beneath Philippakis’ almost mantric yodels. I was unsure as to what to expect, though this rampantly front-footed reintroduction perhaps wouldn’t have factored into my preliminary thinking.
Then there’s Inhaler, which I’ve now of course heard on more than the one lonesome occasion. To my ears, it sounds like Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello grappling with a robotic Coca-Cola vendor in futile attempt to wrangle the post-disco of Liquid Liquid from deep within its imposing figure. At others, it’s as though Brand New circa Déjà Entendu, with erratic bloops suckling at its underbelly. It’s again quite odd, and slightly underwhelming.
But then there’s My Number – a translucent tune, and the album’s first of its sort. It’s something of a reversion to a default mode, though it sounds considerably more fresh than I care to recall the troupe ever having been before. “I feel the love” Yannis soothes, a bristly charm clinging to his voice amid a befuddling repetition ad infinitum of “You don’t have my number.” Whether an allusion to his cellular digits or that adorning his Dalston front door I’ve no idea though it’s utterly immaterial, for the music itself suckers you in and subsumes your attention all but entirely. Hypnotising in its mesmeric familiarity, it takes the opening industrial clatter of Bad Habit to snap us out of it: more of a reversion to the somehow heavy and infrequently leaden instrumentations of Total Life Forever, Philippakis smears watery moans of “wash the stains away” over a claustrophobic, lightly afrobeat backing before the troupe develop the influence further with Everytime on which, for the first time in immediate memory, bongos combine with their relentless deluges of aqueous guitars and barrages of amorphous bass lines.
Though to return to the notion of Foals warranting revere in a way for their adherence to the conventional approach taken toward the composition of a fully cogent record, pinpointed right at its centre is Late Night – the succinct epitome of the traditionally static, and truly epic ending to Side A. Yannis’ lyrics crack like that most brittle of bitterest chocolate, splintering as if for forever around spiralling guitars and an again giddying crescendo, before coming to fade with a riff bordering on unbridled proto-funk.
And if its flipside initially recalls those more soothing, almost aurally sodden pieces of Antidotes – sporadic bits though they may have been, we’re meaning Big Big Love (Fig. 2), Heavy Water, et cetera here – with the sultry, rhythmically ever agile Out Of The Woods then it’s only once we voyage further beyond into uncharted territories that their uninhibited evolution really begins to unfold. Embellished with darting strings, banjo twangs and swoops of the decidedly orchestral, not only is Milk & Black Spiders their most stark divergence from the default thus far, but is perhaps their most irreproachable recording to date. The sort to vindicate the booking of two long since sold out shows at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in just the one day next month, then. “I’ve been around two times and found that you’re the only thing I need” its frequently repeated lyrics go. Round, and round, and round about a melancholy carousel of innumerable layers, each as refined as that either side of it.
There’s then the concerted derangement of Providence, on which Philippakis satiates his primordial urges with simian yapping of “I’m just an animal just like you/ I know I cannot be true/ I’m an animal just like you.” As meticulously planned as their jaunty math of bygone times, it’s a somewhat try-hard, and with that momentarily hairy wig-out that fails to fit with much of the other more cerebral executions on show. It is, to all extensive purposes, the runt of this, their latest litter. And not that they’re in need of comprehensive redemption or owt, though in Moon they’ve another of their most beguiling productions in histories becoming ever more illustrious all the time. It feels irrevocably final; conclusive as the descending of nightly darkness even as that lyrical trope of animalism, or rather mortality and a two-by-two duality returns: “Now the clouds fall out of the sky in two by two/ And my teeth fall out my head into the snow” Yannis chimes lifelessly. It’s cold; captivating even, though most pertinently it sounds striking as an immeasurable Spanish Sahara.
Thus regardless of stylistic differences already evidenced across the discography, there quite transparently is but one author at work here – one abetted by his several steadfast minions – and the lumber to have been hurled into Holy Fire is culled from both of their previous, if aflame with something all the more brilliant and, above all, quietly revolutionary. As such this one must be regarded, and with that esteemed as a new beginning. One which, like its cover, may just be their brightest yet.
Released: February 11th, 2013 [Warner Bros. Records]