The most exciting thing about Foals’ sophomore effort, 2010’s Total Life Forever, was how thoroughly the British act’s ambitious post-rock arrangements exceeded the expectations set by the relatively pedestrian dance-punk of its predecessor, Antidotes. With Holy Fire, the Oxford band struggles with the inevitable blowback from that progression: After successfully raising the bar on its last effort, any deviation from its explosive-growth trajectory is destined to be a bit of a letdown.
To Foals’ credit, they don’t shy away from that ambition on Holy Fire. Picking up where TLF left off, the band alternately revisits the rubbery punk/funk rhythms of its roots and makes a serious bid to establish itself as a forward-thinking heavyweight on par with TV On The Radio or Radiohead. When the two aims dovetail, Foals deliver some stunning tracks. Lead single “Inhaler” slowly builds momentum as math-rock guitar-noodling plays across a deliberate rhythm, finally rewarding listeners’ patience with a come-from-nowhere hook. “Bad Habit” is more subtle, pitting Yannis Philippakis’ soaring vocals and moody, abstract guitar work against a more slippery groove.
Even when shepherded by producers Flood (Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails) and Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Depeche Mode), Foals rarely land in their sweet spot. At times, they deliver tracks that aren’t much more than forays into the same disco-punk vein that !!! and a few generations of Talking Heads worshippers already mined (“My Number”). Other times, they get so wrapped up in progressive-futurist trappings that the tracks seem more like an exercise in tossing effects-blended textured guitars at clanky dance-punk rhythms to see what sticks (“Everytime”).
Holy Fire slightly refines the agenda Foals established on Total Life Forever, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. Holy Fire’s layered, painstakingly constructed songs practically beg for repeated late-night, full-volume listens, and there are enough hints of brilliance to keep Foals near the top of its class. TLF hinted at genius that, perhaps unfairly, skewed expectations of Holy Fire. Foals don’t dash those hopes, but aren’t able to rise to the promise hinted at before.