Let’s play a game of word association. Think of Foals and what comes to mind? Artsy, difficult, oblique, precocious, intelligent, volatile, mathletic. The Oxford group’s albums to date – 2008’s ‘Antidotes’ and 2010’s ‘Total Life Forever’ – are easily among the most innovative and intriguing British rock records of the last half-decade. But Foals have also fostered a reputation of being a little spiky, of playing a bit hard to get. Yannis admits to having been “a control freak”. This is, remember, the band who left their biggest early single, ‘Hummer’, off their debut album. You feel that their ability to furrow brows has, for Foals, been something of a point of pride.
All of which made the arrival of ‘My Number’ at the end of 2012 so surprising. It’s easily the poppiest, least self-conscious track the band had ever laid down. “You don’t have my number, we don’t need each other now/You can’t steal my thunder cos you don’t have my lover’s touch”, sings Yannis. If this were early Foals, those lyrics would be some elaborate metaphor. But no: it’s literally about lead singer Yannis not getting texts from his ex because he’s changed his digits. This willingness to focus the lens at their hearts and embrace a bit of clarity blows throughout ‘Holy Fire’ like a refreshing breeze.
Foals’ third album is a record that bursts out of the speakers and demands to be loved. You will have already heard ‘Inhaler’, a shimmying slow-build with a neat Yannis falsetto that suddenly and unexpectedly blows ‘Holy Fire’ into the stratosphere, and crackles as the embers settle. If you like it when Foals show their teeth, ‘Providence’ is another track that’ll lodge itself in the Most Played page of your iTunes. Rhythmically pugilistic and heavy as all hell, it’s easily the loudest and most obscene Yannis and drummer Jack Bevan – the most overlooked weapon in Foals’ arsenal – have sounded since they were knocking down walls at Oxford house parties as members of The Edmund Fitzgerald.
Though these isolated bursts of energy are the most immediately striking moments on ‘Holy Fire’, it’s the way that the album as a whole unravels and blooms through repeat listens that marks it as Foals’ finest moment to date. In a recent feature, Yannis told NME, “There’s definitely oxygen going to the brain, but we’re not over-analysing things… we wanted to make a greedy record.”
Well, sonically speaking, these songs are the sound of a band gorging themselves, Man V Food style. The whooshing ‘Out Of The Woods’ shadows Yannis’ Arthur Russell-like vocal with shimmers of oriental strings and breathy keys. ‘Milk & Black Spiders’ is a drum gallop embellished with detailed cascades of guitar and strings that come on like a headrush of intense emotion. ‘Moon’ is an excursion into twinkling, nighttime ambience so fragile you hardly take a breath all five minutes, while future single ‘Late Night’ starts in a place of stark loneliness and slowly builds to a chorus that Radio 1 DJs will be introducing well into the year. At times it feels as if there is no arena, stadium or field big enough to contain the songs on ‘Holy Fire’ – although you get the feeling plenty of them will be filled with these songs over the next 12 months.
So, Foals. Artsy. Difficult. Oblique. But no longer. ‘Holy Fire’ brings new words to mind. Sharp. Emotive. Massive. It’s the album ‘Total Life Forever’ could have been before the over-analysing got in the way. As Yannis put it recently: “There was a Woody Allen in our brain that needed to be killed. He got killed.” ‘Holy Fire’ is that assassin, and the terminal blow is exacted with clean precision. Woody didn’t stand a chance.