By Kendall Russ, Online Arts Editor
Published February 12, 2013
When Foals released its 2008 debut, Antidotes, to much fanfare, NME’s review tested the Oxford quintet’s buzz-worthiness with four lessons on “How To Deal With Hype.” The final lesson went something like this: “Make a really good album but not a great one. Alert everyone to your potential but don’t fulfill it.” And while Antidotes aced that test, its 2010 follow-up, Total Life Forever, ditched the insidious droning for more compelling melodies to great effect.
But with its latest release, Holy Fire, Foals falls short of the admittedly lofty benchmark set by its preceding work. Where Total Life Forever seized the jarring intensity of Antidotes and harnessed it brilliantly, Holy Fire is sedated in nearly every aspect. The encouraging “Prelude” and “Inhaler” — among the album’s sole highlights — quickly give way to a convoluted and confused body of work.
When frontman Yannis Philippakis mockingly chanted a Lacoste advertising slogan (“Un peu d’air sur la terre”) on Antidotes opener “The French Open,” the criticism of commercial society was evident. He dumbs it down on the radio-ready “My Number,” though, delivering a toothless track that’s catchy but inane. In place of biting and intelligent social commentary, Philippakis blandly rambles about naïve love for the better part of Holy Fire. The uninspired lyricism on Holy Fire’s weakest moments further manifests itself through uncharacteristically lethargic guitar play. The urgency that once made Foals so captivating is nowhere to be found.
Indeed, Holy Fire contains far too many insipid moments to make it a memorable record. The melancholy introspection of “Bad Habit” and the chilling “Late Night,” while decent, amount to little more than poor imitations of their Total Life Forever predecessors. “Everytime” lacks the unsettling, nervous tenacity of previous Foals, which, again, would be fine if it packed any punch at all.
Perhaps this notable absence of panache stems from a severely restricted Jack Bevan, whose drowsy drumming acts as a poor replacement for his typically complex and unrelenting percussion. Instead of the tightly wound pulsing of Antidotes or the robust funk of Total Life Forever, we get a dull and unmotivated collection of elementary beats. By the closing track, “Moon,” Bevan is entirely absent. Foals understandably would want to tweak its sound on the third album, but abandoning perhaps its strongest quality to date as a focal point is as incomprehensible as it’s ineffective.
Despite the genuine quality of “Inhaler” and “Milk & Black Spiders,” neither track sufficiently supports the rest of Holy Fire’s dead weight. The latter pairs a haunting guitar and Bevan’s (finally!) pounding percussion with Philippakis’s reverberating vocals to brilliantly capture the emotive longing Holy Fire all-too-infrequently taps into. Where the scintillating “Inhaler” bruises and bullies, bringing the Foals way forward with menace, the band expands laterally on “Milk & Black Spiders,” incorporating an eerie synth and a distinguishably darker vibe. Unfortunately, such lateral growth occurs sparingly, if at all, across the album.
Holy Fire’s fatal problem, though, is the glaring absence of any cogent, cohesive identity. It features unexciting, gushy love songs with spritely pop-infused hooks; more sorrowful accounts of distant and lost love; even blaring and clumsy grunge with no intelligible theme. Concluding with its two softest songs after its loudest and most cluttered merely highlights the album’s thematic, lyrical and musical disunity throughout.
The single criticism directed at Foals’s angular, bizarre debut centered on its obdurate rigidity and its inaccessibility. The band artfully addressed these concerns on its follow-up, exchanging the atonal chanting for a fuller but often more withdrawn sound. Holy Fire struggles to strike that balance, often going for far too much or far too little. It results in a sporadic effort at best, and a confused, defensive step backward, at worst. With a self-assured lyrical and vocal composure, Philippakis dropped the bark but still maintained the vicious bite of Foals’ debut on Total Life Forever. Holy Fire hardly even amounts to a growl.