The record where Oxford’s finest graduated from house parties to arenas turns 10.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
It’s a rare but magical thing when you can instantly tell that a band is levelling up before your ears. That they’re no longer content with selling out rooms, they want to sell out arenas. They don’t want to be sixth down on a festival bill, they want to top-line it. They don’t want to be MySpace’s favourite band, they want to be Radio 1’s favourite band. They don’t want to just be a popular guitar band, they want to be PopularTM. On November 5th 2012, about 1:46 into comeback single “Inhaler,” Foals levelled up.
The Oxford quintet were already one of the more noteworthy and promising names in the late-00s British indie crop – the NME class given the instantly-dreadful monicker of “nu-rave” – known for their highly-technical math-rock-indebted bangers which so perfectly slid into a Skins soundtrack that they actually got to perform on Skins. Sophomore LP Total Life Forever saw them shifting into more atmospheric, slow-burn waters, best encapsulated by transcendent lead-off single “Spanish Sahara.” But, for all of the album’s high points, it was certainly a transitory record, remaining insular, emotionally-cryptic if not outright-cold, and sounded just as rigid and precise in its own way as debut Antidotes. Foals had shifted their sound, but not in a way which indicated grand mainstream ambitions. A first listen to “Spanish Sahara” does not immediately convey a band who will be selling out the Royal Albert Hall twice over one album cycle later.
With “Inhaler,” though, Foals aim squarely for that next level. The big “oh, shit” moment is at that 1:46 mark, of course, but the prior build sets up the realisation beautifully. The guitars have more of a thick crunch (even with the delay pedal usage) than in any prior Foals song, the bass is groovy but with a swaggering low-end more akin to heavy rock, and the gradual progression – adding new instrumental lines and chord changes just when the song threatens to get static – is not too far removed from the EDM ‘build-peak-drop’ structure which dominated turn-of-the-10s pop music. So, when Yannis Phillipakis yells “I CAN’T GET E-NUFF…” at 1:46, Foals were already primed to launch into the stratosphere.
But when that riff follows, drop-D tuning slathered in fuzz-pedal and playing a seven-note scale so simple that even a rank amateur can replicate it, Foals no longer want to be NME-famous. That’s not a riff for indie discos full of awkward White boys to begrudgingly shimmy to, that’s a riff to start moshpits in festival fields that resemble the ending of Braveheart. I can distinctly remember my first stream of “Inhaler” a week or so after its release, via somebody picking it as their song on short-lived music social network This is My Jam, hitting that riff with Yannis’ accompanying “SPAAAAAACE!!!” and being floored. A primal gut instinct to go full Street Fighter II on a nearby car, followed by the realisation that Foals were preparing to ascend. When Holy Fire, which turns 10 today, dropped three months later, that feeling was proven and then some.
That said, painting Holy Fire as the band’s conscious effort to aim for the bleachers might lead a listener to expect an album deeply fussed-over, torturously realised, and stiffly-produced. In actuality, it’s their most relaxed-sounding album to date. Following the infamously rough creations of their first two albums, plus preliminary Australian sessions in early 2011 that yielded little results, Foals hooked up with rock super-producers Flood and Alan Moulder, the latter of whom had mixed Total Life Forever, and primarily decamped to the pair’s Assault & Battery studio complex in London.
Flood and Moulder, plus engineer Catherine Marks, spent days retrofitting their recording booths to allow the band to record entire useable tracks together at the same time and tricked the quintet into thinking many of their early takes were just rehearsals. Certain elements of songs, such as Yannis’ guitar solo at the end of “Late Night” and drummer Jack Bevan’s massive fill in “Providence,” were only allowed to be recorded a few times in an effort to preserve the spontaneity and stop a band full of chronic overthinkers from getting in their own heads. They decked the studio out with lots of vegetation in an effort to further distance themselves from prior recording studios, which they described as “clinical” and “windowless,” and recorded the ambience of bees and flies to try and make the record feel more alive and natural. Songs were built from looped recordings and jams, often seeing older takes – such as the aforementioned “Inhaler” which supposedly began life as a 27-minute jam – revisited later and stripped-back into the more direct forms that made the album.
The results are epic in feel but ruthlessly direct in construction. A song like “Out of the Woods” introduces itself with a wind gust that pans through all audio channels and runs primarily on marimba, yet separates itself from the moodiness of similar tracks on Total Life Forever with a collection of the album’s stickiest grooves and a moving group vocal on the chorus. Similar deal with “Milk & Black Spiders,” maybe the closest thing here to older Side B Foals but with a vulnerability and warmth designed for mass catharsis. “Inhaler”’s an outlier in terms of macho rock aggression but it does get a sister song in the form of “Providence,” a galloping 7/8 riff-monster which Moulder & Flood overdub and compress to within an inch of its life so the climactic release sounds like it’s heralding the Four Horsemen. I remember at the time calling it a riff in search of a song, but over the years I’ve grown to appreciate the ways in which the production compensates for the song’s simplicity and replicates the energy of their live performances.
A lot of Holy Fire’s production and songwriting choices seem to have sprang from a desire to faithfully translate Foals’ live energy – where they uniformly increase the tempos on all songs, Jack whales on his drums like they murdered his entire family, and every song including the ballads gain an added muscle – to a studio recording. Whereas Antidotes sounds like the product of academics who will be shot if a single note is out of line, and Total Life Forever could sacrifice hooks in favour of texture, Holy Fire even at its most complex feels like the work of five guys in a room feeding off of each other. Riffs are funky but also easy enough to drunkenly yell along to on a Friday night in a pub carpark. “Bad Habit” has a relaxed looseness, and as such a proper emotional connection, that a prior song like “This Orient” couldn’t quite manage.
And then there’s Yannis. He’s a man with a limited vocal range and a preference for lyrics that melodically sound nice over making any sense. A fair bit of Total Life Forever’s half-step status comes from the music pushing Yannis, as both vocalist and lyricist, into a position he wasn’t yet properly ready for – going from the cryptic, minimalist rhythmic barks of “Electric Bloom” to the strained vocals and obtuse proclamations of “Miami” – not in the least bit aided by a mix pushing his voice right to the forefront. On Holy Fire, he’s better learnt how to utilise the limitations of his voice in ways that service the song rather than detract from them; it audibly cracks and scrapes multiple times during “Spanish Sahara” spiritual successor “Late Night”’s more climactic moments, but that sells the pleading emotion in his lyrics.
His imagery is often straightforward and boilerplate, prone to hackneyed rhyme or phrasing as on the “step by aching stepson” of “Stepson,” but a lot of it works. For the first time on a Foals record, I can tell you what the vast majority of songs are about rather than merely shrugging my shoulders and repeating that one Will Ferrell Blades of Glory quote. “Milk & Black Spiders” is a vulnerable ode to long distance relationships, “Providence” makes macho carnal sex sound to this asexual non-binary introvert totally fucking sweet, and the fantastic “My Number” scans as both a celebratory break-up song about a toxic ex and an ode to anonymous casual hook-ups on a night out.
“My Number,” in general, works as a case study for Holy Fire’s progress. As the album’s most direct shot across the indie disco bow, much as that descriptor may irritate Yannis who declared the entire scene “dead and buried with a chain of garlic around its neck” to NME, it’s also the most Antidotes-indebted song on here. But there’s a swinging playfulness to Jimmy Smith and Yannis Philippakis’ guitars that never existed on Antidotes, an almost Talking Heads funk. Bassist Walter Gervers’ backing “woo-hoo”s over the verses are properly fun in a way that past Foals singles never were. Instruments seem to bleed into each other’s sonic space, creating a summery euphoria that feels bashed out in an afternoon in a good way – rather than the literal 100 times Flood supposedly made the band play until they got it just right. It’s a song which is eager to please the listener rather than forcing them to meet it on its turf. Sure, it sounds great on an indie disco dancefloor just before last call, but it was really made for festival main stages as thousands of people collectively lose their minds to that riff.
Holy Fire has its issues, mainly in how it trails off in its closing stretch like basically all Foals records do. As fantastic as “Inhaler” and “Providence” are, they arguably laid the groundwork for all of the band’s future excursions into cock-rock, which would bear out career nadir Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 2. And I wouldn’t call it either the best or my favourite Foals album – firmly my #3, behind Antidotes at #2 and Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 1 at #1, case you’re wondering. But it might be the best example of what each band member brought to the collective. Yannis’ unmistakeable vocal presence, Jimmy’s winding guitar interplay, Walter’s pulsating and muscular bass, Jack’s uncommon drum lines and sheer force of power, and keyboardist Edwin Congreave’s textural accentuations that can soften a track or turn up the drama at a moment’s notice (as with the laser screams at the end of “Providence”).
In late March 2013, a month and a half after the release of Holy Fire, Foals were announced as one of the headliners for that year’s Latitude, their first festival headline slot. By the time they released What Went Down two years later, they were gearing up to tour arenas. Unlike basically all of their contemporaries, Foals levelled up and they haven’t looked back since.
Callie Petch has been around two times and found that you’re the only thing they need.