Saturday, 9 February 2013

Foals - Holy Fire


One of the drawbacks to hearing a band drastically shift their sound from one album to the next, is that it leaves you - in the long-run - lying in a state of anxious expectation. Or rather, a hesitance of it. Should we expect even greater things? Is this perhaps as good as it's going to get? For a band like Foals who, on their previous two albums, have gone from what was a modest, danceable, mathematically-charged darting of rock on Antidotes, to the sonically-captivating grand offering that Total Life Forever came up trumps over, they've in some way put themselves at a disadvantage; that their [increased] legion of fans and critics will expect more from them, and thus assume this monumental shift is but the start of many a more great accomplishments in their, still, young careers. When you notice that it has been a year more in duration between the previous record and this one, for certain the feeling of expectation begins to creep up again, and for better or worse, it's stuck with you. So after plenty of patience, plenty of hype, and of course, plenty of speculation as to whether they could conquer - let alone match - the heights of 2010's fabulous sophomore, the World's second-favourite Oxford five-piece lie on edge of glory. And such, their third album Holy Fire, appears like some monumental expectant repeating of history for Oxford bands and LP3 in their discography.

Well get ready for some, perhaps, unwanted 90's throwback folks, because this album is indeed Oxford's [un]official 2nd sonic rock landmark. From the word go, Prelude - which in Foal's context, is less the humble one, maybe two-minute progressing towards the track following it - opens with a slow, gruesome tread of bass alongside a set of guitar strings and percussion that immediately casts a grander stage for the album to present itself on. But it's the way the track continues to build momentum and engagement through deeper usage of percussion and more intricately placed guitars, that the energy in the piece truly comes out. And though there is still less of a stand-alone presence and more indeed a sense this is very much the build up to what should be an incredible record. And the closing cries of lead vocalist Yannis Philippakis, as if they're almost caught amid the chaos and unleashing of these sounds, leaves the track ending on that same menacing energy. It's quite then the intriguing lead for following track Inhaler to lead on from, because it sees the band taking on a much more acoustic and integral ideal in their sound. But it's that drastic switch on its beginning of echoing guitar strums and steady drum beats, that acts a sort of deceptive misleading into what is, at its core, an equally rough and bold unleashing of fog-horn chord riffs and thunderous cymbal hits, all of which pierced by Philippakis' audacious calls. And yet all the while, the band remain focused and confident in pushing the song's former usage of lighter strum leads, but it's the switch from former to latter that comes off as the most effective piece of this track.

Follower My Number sees the band embracing their earlier math-rock tendencies and the track's overall popier, friendlier embrace still leaves some desirable space for the accompanying, rowdier guitar riffs to show themselves. And the rhythm of the track does indeed feel like it borrows from present-day electronic usage by rock bands, but somehow, Foals remain vigilant in keeping the overall palette of sounds to be of an organic sort, and the scope of guitar sounds - from the pluckier high-shoot of strings to the billowing yawn of bass thereafter - gives the track a much wider and livelier charisma to it. Charisma which, Phillipakis' upbeat expression comes off in vast waves of. So as far as releases go, we've by this point stepped into unknown waters, and it's up to Foals to prove their strength doesn't lie on just their singles. Fortunately, the track Bad Habit continues this varying shift (without being too orthodox or indecisive) in its more melodic approach. Guitars conjure a further afield distance to them in their execution and the secretive harmonies that nestle underneath add a much richer and softer texture to the instrumental's cavernous, distancing. In this scenario, it would be easy to often add a sense of a story or even thorough concept to the music, and yet Philippakis appears to reject that notion, instead ushering in bold expressions of: 'I've made my mistakes/And I feel something's changed/Now I know what's at stake/Wash the stains away' And just like that, the music continues on in this same melodic suggestion of something more complex, but doesn't exactly concretely declare it, and it feels ever the more the better choice of execution.

The crucial element then to take note of, when you listen to Foals sound here, is that while the five-piece do go for a sound identity that still merits change and diversity, at the same time, it doesn't necessarily leave them at trivial indecision with what they've already come to in their career. It's hard for any band to invest change and still hold originality to the point where listeners, and critics more likely, remain convinced the band know what they're doing. Fortunately, when Foals decide to approach a piece of music in a differencing approach, their execution remains overly Foalish in its investment of melody and textural layering. Late Night can be seen as the band's first real attempt at beginning an idea at its most simplest and purest form - Philippakis' soft, ethereal offering of lyrics backed by a solitary slow pressing of keys and tender drum hits at its starting point. 'Oh I hope that you're somebody', he begins in a more hopeful but slightly melancholic suggestion. 'Someone I could count to pull me to my feet again, when I was in doubt'. Eventually, the track progresses into more rhythmic, and perhaps groove-centred vibes in its flow of intimate bass guitar and passing swipes of violin. And before long, the track reaches its true emotive lengths in its heavier drop of piano keys and jagged guitar descents, all the while percussion becoming the greater driving force behind the entire track. And even when the track vacates from its climatic force of guitar riffs and clouded layering of instrumentation, the way it closes fully on its return to a groovier pattern of plucked guitars and mellow keys suggests a prolonged feeling in the emotional and conceptual side to the track, but doesn't (again) necessarily dictate or finalize as to what the track's true agenda is standing for.

Though not overly complex theoretically or even in their choice of chord structures or use of dynamics or timing, Foals entice the listener into their atmospheric sounds, and the instrumentation overall gains an incredible amount of durability and integrity because of it. The track Out Of The Woods doesn't, on first inspection, spell out anything complex or provoking in its passage of guitars, bass and drumbeats, and yet the way the track is produced amid its withdrawn build of layering, entices us into the actual emotion of the piece. And the band's incorporation of atmospheric production leaves the instrumentation at its least physical and transcends it more into a metaphoric, or perhaps sensual level. And Philippakis' short, simple offerings of humane desire on Milk & Black Spiders only goes to lengthen Foals' desire to transcend their music beyond its simple physicality of guitars, drums and additional synthesis. 'I've been around two times and found that you're the only thing I need', Philippakis' repeats throughout amidst a song that becomes ever the more elevated and liberated from its physical attachment. And the additional use of pristine crisp strings only goes to intensify that sense of liberation and, perhaps, journeying to what is this sudden realization of what love and desire should be.

But again, as noted, amidst all this ascension and sailing towards the higher planes of scope and sound, it's great to hear the band not only return to where their feet touch the ground, but in doing so, return with an immediate and slightly bombastic extroversion of aesthetic rock mentality, as is the case with Providence. Its track, suggesting the scope and great lengths as to what their sound is hoping to reach, leads into the open grounds alongside Philippakis' part-ushered, part-bellowed offerings of 'I'm an animal just like you', which despite its repetitious nature, meets the gradual climbatizing and following build of guitar textures and unorderly, ravage layers of such sound that emanate as a result. And as the track's closing statement suggests, Philippakis' exchange of an animal-like character comes off in just as likely a carnivorous, energetic suggestion he's hinting at. Moon, Holy Fire's closer, is as much the lone, luminous figure as its name suggests, but doesn't necessarily protrude into a sound that comes off as withdrawing or secluded. Instead, guitars do indeed emanate a kind of far-reaching glow in their simple pattern of strums, and the way each instrument's offering layers atop one another creates a soothing narration atop Philippakis' similarly echoed distancing of lyrics. But the way the heavy and brisk toppling of synthesizers come in creates a familiar tension to the track's initial soothing mentality. And by the time strings appear - lining the sound in this arched sway of ambiance - it provides the perfect accompaniment for the track's elevating fade off of distorted guitar riffs and withdrawn clouds of sound, that slowly drift off into silence - finally closing the album in a perfectly symbolic sense of content and peace with itself.

There aren't many albums - rock albums especially - in today's age that manage to captivate the listener in such a way that gives allusion to the feeling of discovery without overly drifting from a base of focus. One of the things then that makes a record, that aims for variance without consequence, work, is that it understands where its borders lie and rather than simply retreating back from them, stands at that fine line and expresses itself in the most emotionally captivating, and structurally brave, way possible. Holy Fire then, is Foals' most self-accepting and most recognizably personal record to date, and its borrowing from previous efforts is not only a way of declaring the band's understanding of their own artistic borders, but it also - with the help of precise ambiguity in layering and vague declarations of what it is that the song hopes to illustrate through subject matter - portrays their sound, to an emphatic degree, as one of immediate and textural strength. Some of the greatest 90's variances in sound: Screamadelica, Parklife, OK Computer, Emergency & I...they all share that same understanding in reaching out to the wider fields of musical objectiveness without losing any of the band's human reasoning for such expression. Foals, without question, can now be found alongside such greats as the newest member to that shortlist of artists that have created an album so texturally captivating, yet so comforting in its focus, the resulting delivery from start to finish, is one of a multilaterally coerce - without being authoritative - nature.
~Jordan

9.2

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