For a British buzz band, 2008 was a weird time to leap across the pond. The early part of the decade had been dominated to a large degree by UK imports praised to no end by America's often criminally hyperbolized music press. From the steely anthemics of Interpol to the jagged, jaunty art-rock of Franz Ferdinand, from the mopey but energy-rich stylings of Bloc Party to the driving, nonchalant approach preferred by The Futureheads, America's music consumers were charmed by a small armada of acts which often allowed their stylized sense of propulsion to outweigh their emotional impact.
Foals, a Brit band from Oxford, arrived with similar stylistic markers and dropped their debut, Antidotes, in 2008, just as American critics and — to a certain extent — listeners began to tire of dapper Europeans peddling immaculate rock records. Five years later, the band seems ill-suited to such comparisons. Holy Fire — Foals' intense and impressive third LP — sets distorted fire to the band's keenly kinetic style. The album indulges in mind-bending soundscapes cut from the same pattern as Radiohead's more recent offerings and towering hooks which approximate U2's theatrical grandeur. It's an imposing display of talent and savvy which few music fans would have expected back in 2008, and one that people can witness live at the Neighborhood Theatre on May 1.
"It's so relentlessly clean-sounding," noted Dusted Magazine's Charlie Wilmoth in his review of Antidotes, amid allusions to "a slightly weirder Bloc Party" and "a Franz Ferdinand B-side" and the assertion that Yannis Philippakis' intentionally vague lyrics don't end up meaning much of anything. "More than anything else, Antidotes is about the considerable amount of time it must have taken to make it; its eccentricities have mostly been scrubbed away."
From its opening "Interlude," Holy Fire makes it hard to believe such criticism was ever warranted. With its post-rock prickles hitched to a raunchy, stadium-sized riff which crunches with slacker-inspired distortion, "Interlude" is all about eccentricities. And there's nothing clean about "Inhaler," which twists its purposeful, afrobeat-leaning guitars and dominant bass lines with ever-escalating fuzz until it explodes into a colorfully distorted hook which would have felt right at home on U2's Zooropa. Holy Fire is a powerful — and somewhat uneven — slab of mainstream rock which never lets accessibility get in the way of its ambition, nor any cleverness strip away its emotional resonance.
Foals guitarist Jimmy Smith is proud of Holy Fire and the strides he and his bandmates have made, but he's also quick to refute the idea that the passion and diversity which define it weren't present at the group's outset.
"That's total bollocks," he says, his accent made thicker by bristling disdain. "That's like seven, six years ago, and we were doing it with passion back then as well. We were a lot younger, and those were the first songs we wrote. But we never ever saw ourselves as a style band. We saw ourselves as the same band that we see ourselves as now, really, just the sound was a bit younger. Different influences back then maybe. But I'd happily disagree with someone who says that it was a style thing back then or not as important and passionate as it is now. It's the same band."
To his credit, Antidotes is more self-conscious than unfeeling. It lacks the confidence to stray too far from its core sound, and it's insistent on murky phrasing which keeps the listener at arm's length. But a song like "Balloon," with its nervy drum skitters and kinetic guitar loops, isn't wanting for energy. It also finds Philippakis inflecting his polite post-rock croon with growling grit as he insists with increasing fervor that "there's a thing called [love]," desperately clinging to a cloying sentiment, using it as a buoy in a time of distress. Listening back to Antidotes now, it's littered with similar instances, clues that predict the potent outfit Foals would become.
"We just love playing," Smith says. "If the five of us are enjoying something, then we can't help but be passionate. When we play live, it could be a show that we're worried about, or we're tired or hungover or whatever, or there's like one person in the crowd or 20,000 people in the crowd, but the switch always seems to flick when we get on stage, and we always seem to mean it. We just care about what we do."
Total Life Forever, released in 2010, saw Foals come into their own. "Before, I was almost hiding in the music," Philippakis told The Guardian when that album dropped. "I used music to build a fortress around myself."
There are no such barriers on Total Life, a record so emotionally raw that it manages profound catharses despite its subdued nature. Take "Spanish Sahara," now the most popular song in the group's young catalog. It's a slow build, starting with single note guitar plucks that ring out with devastating simplicity. Philippakis sings with delicate determination about hands which won't wash clean, imagining a beach where he can "forget the horror here." Guitar parts build, and distortion ramps up. Bass and drums twist into a maniacal groove. By the end of the song's almost seven-minute span, Philippakis is crying out: "A choir of furies in your head/ A choir of furies in your bed/ I'm the ghost in the back of your head!" The details are still vague. The emotions are not — a strength he refines on Holy Fire.
"It's nice for him to feel a little more honest and comfortable with his lyrics," offers Smith. "It goes hand in hand with the music, I think. We didn't want to overcalculate or overthink the lyrics or the music or anything. So I think the fact that we're writing this more honest music kind of helped him as well."
To this point, Foals are bigger back home than they are in the U.S. While Antidotes debuted third on the BBC's Top 40 Albums chart — with each subsequent LP cracking the top 10 — Foals didn't make the Billboard 100 until Holy City, which came in at 86. But Foals isn't bothered by such figures. They feel no pressure to be anything other than what they are. Further success, to whatever extent it occurs, will come at its own pace.
"I like what we're doing in the sort of balancing, trying to make popular music that's a bit weird," Smith says. "I don't know if we have the desire to be like the biggest band in the world, but we're certainly enjoying our gaining popularity at the moment. It's pretty fun."