CHRISTOPHER T. SHARPE
Forging ahead after the successful artistic shift that came with 2010’s Mercury-nominated Total Life Forever, Oxford five-piece Foals returned back in February with Holy Fire, trading in their Utah cult-esque mantras for the tenets of Orthodox Christianity.
A similar transition to the more fundamentalist occurs in the sound of the record, as the most immediately identifiable development – and perhaps the most interesting for the options it creates – is that they’ve found out the age old guitar music technique of turning their amplifiers to 11… and they know how to use it.
First single Inhaler possesses an outright monster of a riff, muscular and rip-roaring, which despite having lost that element of surprise from first listening, has exchanged the sensation of startlement for an anticipatory excitement that comes with the release it affords amidst the song’s claustrophobic breathless tone. Providence similarly pound and rages amidst the distortion as it reaches its moments of crescendo.
Alongside the extra toys in the box though, the group still make increasingly well-defined use of their now staple sonic stomping grounds on Holy Fire: the precise fret-board mathematics with which they first caught our ears, the uber-infectious and festival-ready My Number; the atmospheric spaciousness previously wielded to such transcendent effect on Spanish Sahara, reaching its most sublime on album highlights Late Night and Milk & Black Spiders.
Crucially, with this increasing repertoire and refinement comes a sparer use of any individual aesthetic, facets of all the elements of their sound, old and new, instead rising and falling to prominence throughout an album that operates like a Galileo thermometer, fluctuations in mood and temperature instigating appropriate shifts in song-writing and production. There’s a developing sense of freedom, and an artful awareness of their abilities and craft that marks Holy Fire out as highly-accomplished achievement – resounding if not necessarily earth-shattering – on the level of the instrumental in particular.
It’s for this reason that if Foals were to come away with the Mercury Prize – at the second time of asking – there’d be no need to turn towards Revelations for a how-to-guide on dealing with the aftermath (Bugg however…). Some of the band’s finest and most ambitious moments are contained on Holy Fire, and they’re possessed of and delivered with a swagger and confidence that’s immensely reassuring amidst a tide of NME-endorsed posers, frantically trying to hide their stolen ideas under their Grandma’s coats and channelling their discomfort into the space between their in-turned winkle-pickers.
As a bastion of British alt-rock music we could certainly do far worse. There’s much to admire, moments to love, and plenty to suggest 2013 could very much be the year Foals get to the podium.