In 2010, Foals put out one of the best albums of the year. “Total Life Forever” was danceable indie rock with the vast atmospheres of Explosions in the Sky. Most importantly, it was consistent: every track is a gem. Each cut was different, without sounding like it aimed for that perception.
The standard these U.K. darlings have a lot to live up to — each of their albums, “Holy Fire” included, has charted at No. 10 or higher across the pond. When album opener “Prelude” kicks in, a lot of questions can be asked.
First, where did the happiness go? “Total Life Forever” was either joyous or melancholic, but never sinister or gritty like “Prelude.” It’s reminiscent of God Is An Astronaut and their alternative rock-influenced instrumentals and the pounding kick drum create a sense of pre-war unease.
It’s a complete 180-degree turn for the group. However, it’s very good. It’s completely fair to want another “Total Life Forever” because of how awesome that record was. But here’s the thing: If you want that album, listen to it. This is something different; while it’s still produced by Foals, it’s not immediately evident.
That’s probably because we haven’t heard from singer Yannis Philippakis yet. Lead single and second track “Inhaler” falls somewhere between the previous song and their previous album. Philippakis’ voice changes between light wispiness and emotional power, but the former quality is far less present on “Holy Fire” due to the more intense nature of the album.
It may seem like the Foals of yesteryear have packed their bags and left without looking back after the album’s opening minutes, but “My Number” would fit right in on “Total Life Forever” and as “Holy Fire” plays itself out, it’s easy to think that about the rest of the tracks, too.
So really, Foals didn’t shift their sound: The first two tracks just aren’t representative of the rest of the album.
Foals should be applauded for trying to mix up their vibe, but that doesn’t seem to actually be happening. The harder edge of the first couple tracks attempts to create an illusion that the rest of the album is a different beast, but it isn’t. And that’s fantastic, because “Total Life Forever” was great: Greatness is something you don’t mess with.
AC/DC has been making essentially the same album since 1975, and they get away with it because the songs are good. Foals don’t have that level of stylistic monotony, but the example serves to illustrate the point that a complete reinvention isn’t necessary with each new record.
“Holy Fire” could almost be looked at as a companion to “Total Life Forever.” Picture these two records having been released as a two-disc concept album, the first half of which is slightly more upbeat and optimistic while the closing disc gets a slight dose of grit. That could easily work and continuity between albums is a good thing for a band — not monotony, continuity.
There is a difference: Monotony would mean the group banked on the success of the first record by making few alterations to their aesthetic and carrying on as they were, while continuity sees them building on their previous work to step forward and try something slightly new, but not too much so, because as aforementioned, there’s no point in fixing something that works perfectly fine.
Foals injected a small bit of testosterone into “Holy Fire” which, upon first listen, can leave a taste in your mouth — not a bad one, but an unsettling one. However, repeat listens bring out the charm of their previous album, which was a gorgeous reverb-soaked rollercoaster. The crunchy guitars settle in as just another weapon in a familiar arsenal.
The picked guitars are still here, as are the dance-like beats and Philippakis’ vocals, which are among the best in modern indie. Maybe Foals are trying to fool themselves into thinking they’re a bit harder than they actually are, but if a few minor changes are all it takes for them to keep pumping out records that sound familiar but fresh, they can think whatever they want.