I knew late last year that I was going to truly enjoy this album. "Inhaler," for all the (rather playful) Audioslave-related flak it received from a few friends of mine, was a truly intriguing first offering. Never before had Foals flexed muscles quite like that. I heard strains of Filter and At the Drive-In where others heard more commercial (and far more obnoxious) echoes, and no matter what you drew from those crashing waves of distortion, you knew it was something new, that the band was pushing into unexplored territory, and not recklessly, but with the confidence and deftness of the musicians that wrote the fantastic Total Life Forever. My high expectations for this album were easily exceeded, yet I resisted the urge to try to commit whatever vague fragments of thought were initially stirred up by Foals' accomplishment, opting to enjoy the record without the pressure of finding "something to say" about it. And so, a week after Holy Fire hit shelves, I have come to a fully-formed opinion of Foals' third full-length: it is triumphant.
Holy Fire is a triumphant record on a number of levels. First off, the band was cast as something of a mystery after their debut Anitdotes. Some folks, myself in particular, heard the first shouts from a talented group of upstarts (and even "upstarts" may be too gentle a term, the band did take over mixing duties from producer Dave Sitek after all), though others only somewhat entertained the idea that Foals might truly become a band others were compared to, not a band struggling to escape constant comparison. Foals more than delivered on the promise and potential of that first record with Total Life Forever. And now, as though anticipating those who might write their phenomenal sophomore album off as a brilliant fluke, Holy Fire makes it damn near impossible to see their progression and evolution as anything short of a triumphant ascent.
I remember reading more than a few early (and misguided) dismissals of Foals as the poor man's Bloc Party, yet here they are with arguably their most assured outing to date—and remember, three records in Bloc Party were (tragically) fraying at the seams, with each record a shadow of its predecessor, the band trying yet ultimately failing to recapture the sheer brilliance of Silent Alarm, and eventually going off the rails with the electronic instrumentation, seemingly more inspired by those who remixed their early work than the actual influences of those compositions. Whatever Bloc Party had to say, they said it (and, again, brilliantly so) on Silent Alarm and a few of the singles, b-sides, and EPs (Two More Years, in particular) that came out around that time. Perhaps this is why I am so drawn to "Bad Habit," the first Foals track where I would entertain any actual comparison to Bloc Party—it's not that Foals borrowed a page from Bloc Party's playbook (just a cursory listen to Holy Fire reveals no lack of talent, originality, or damned strong songwriting), but rather that they tap into the energy that made Silent Alarm such a profoundly engaging and inspiring album. There's no small irony in this feat: not only have Foals stepped out of shadows cast by Bloc Party's early dominance of the British indie rock scene (for many of us Foals were never overshadowed, though it's now undeniable to even the most cynical music critic that Foals are truly their own beast), but they are now setting the tempo and appear to still be gathering steam. Foals have come into their own on their own terms. Where seven years ago it was "Helicopter" that changed the game, these days it may well be "Bad Habit" or perhaps the effortlessly brilliant "Late Night."
And let's not forget that jumping to a major label is often a death knell, especially for a creative, original band like Foals. Too often are talented and unique voices seemingly cowed, hushed, and homogenized by the (over-)production of their major label debuts and all the expensive (re-)packaging and pageantry. Holy Fire easily evades all of these pitfalls. If anything, Holy Fire is Foals' most experimental album (seriously, just listen to "Late Night" and "Providence"), and it accomplishes this without slipping into the category of "style over substance," or, as my friend Alan noted about Dutch Uncle's recent release, technical proficiency over solid songwriting. Yannis Philppakis' voice is wonderfully raw, sounding very much like he does live, as though the goal was to capture the true tenor of his voice, not to alter it with myriad filters and a twiddling of knobs, which adds to the honesty felt throughout the record, especially the latter half. The final three tracks are a brilliant end to a phenomenal album, and other reviewers (rightfully so) have tracked this statement back to the album's fulcrum or turning point, "Late Night." I truly do not understand how that daft critic at the Independent feels the album stumbles to a close; on the contrary, Holy Fire's final moments are among its finest, and in many ways strongly color this review with their dusk-tinged hues. There is an honesty, at turns tragic then graceful, painful yet triumphant, that radiates from the album's conclusion, a sensation that lingers on well into the silence that greets the listener at the close of the spectral, haunting "Moon."
Lauren Strain's wonderful review of Holy Fire at The Quietus taps into this honesty, into the bleak imagery captured by Philppakis' lyrics, forming from it a fantastic statement:
"Whether it comes with age, experience, or both, there's a point at which we can detect our torment shifting to tolerance, our fast-calcifying angst beginning to make room for something approaching understanding."
Strain is right, this is a transitional, liminal, and mature work (interestingly, a work about liminality and maturation). Even in its numerous playful, energetic, and boisterous moments, Holy Fire comes off as a confident, assured, and honest record, and this isn't just the product of the members growing older, more experienced, and more secure in their lives and craft, but the product of a hard-fought tenacity and its ensuing understanding and resilience, the kind you get from staying the course even when the wind and weather appear against you.