Decay and growth, rotting bones as prospective percussion instruments, and chain gang music aren’t the first things that come to mind when a British indie rock band’s new album is announced. Yet a recent interview with Foals front man Yannis Philippakis cites these things — and many more — as shaping the quintet’s third album, Holy Fire. Even if it weren’t for such intriguing inspirations, Foals would still have a lot to live up to. Not only was their last release — 2010’s Total Life Forever — considered a significant leap for the band in honing a more multifaceted sound, but Holy Fire also follows a recent spate of particularly strong British indie releases from bands such as Wild Beasts, the Horrors, and Friendly Fires. Seeing as those bands released their last albums in 2011, the time is ripe for another musically complex but strangely accessible album from the UK indie scene. Holy Fire has potential of being that album and sometimes surpasses the highs it aims for. Unfortunately it doesn’t do this enough.
Holy Fire claims Flood and Alan Moulder as its producers, and the atmosphere those two names suggest manages to mesh quite well with Foals’ signature sound. Philippakis has mentioned recording in a studio with live vegetation, about the usefulness of having plants growing in a space in which something else is evolving in a very different way. Although Holy Fire certainly doesn’t hide its synthetic qualities, many tracks are rooted in a more traditional style of music. Philippkas has spoken highly of Alan Lomax’s enduring chain gang recordings, and references pop up in unexpected places here. The opening of “Providence” is a bluesy bellow that still sounds perfectly at home in an indie song. Even the repeated line, “’Cos I’ve been around two times and found you’re the only thing I need,” in “Milk and Black Spiders” somehow feels like a chain gang call-and-response even with post-rock composition overpowering it.
Another surprisingly American influence is the (mild, this is a British band, after all) kitsch that somehow amplifies “My Number”, one of the album’s best songs. A bass riff reminiscent of “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang grants it its earworm potential, but it’s saved from being pure cotton candy by Jack Bevan’s strong percussion and one of Philippakis’ better deliveries. First single “Inhaler” saves itself from a post-rock overindulgence of a chorus thanks to a lead-up far groovier than anything a post-rocker should ever conceive of developing.
Still, Foals have a few limitations preventing them from being a truly great indie band. For one, Philippkas’ voice isn’t always as pliant as he may think it is, and it strains throughout Holy Fire‘s more demanding tracks. Sometimes a more introspective approach can work in the band’s favor — as it does on album closer “Moon” — but even Flood and Moulder can’t save the ballady mire that is “Stepson”. Still, Foals are good enough that they can save largely underwhelming songs; Philippakis’ impassioned closing outburst on “Late Night”, and the instrumental funk digression that serves as its outro, makes the song’s mediocre lyrics and unexceptional melodies well worth sitting through.
From an American’s perspective, Foals ranks above average in the UK indie universe, with generally better singing than on the Horrors’ releases, but lacking Wild Beasts’ aversion to filler and failing to match Friendly Fires’ ratio of straight-up sing-along moments. Foals’ restraint likely has something to do with the latter failing, and when placed in this light it’s not a failing at all. If Holy Fire is taken as a clarion call from indie rockers oversees, then we may have a lot to look forward to this year.