You don't give an album a title like Holy Fire without having something epic and spacious waiting underneath the shrink wrap. They always tell us not to judge a record by its cover, or for that matter, by the words on that cover, but I’d wager that no one went into Born to Run expecting an acoustic singer/songwriter record, or cracked the seal on Achtung Baby without realizing that its technicolor sleeve was the introduction to a new decade, a new style, a new U2. Album covers and titles are the first ways for an artist to make an impression, the first chance they have to announce a shift in direction or sound, or to tell fans to check their expectations at the door. And with Holy Fire, everything—from the evocative words, to the horses-washed-by-the-waves cover art, to the thrilling build-up of the “Prelude” track—screams “big.” By the time proper opener “Inhaler” breaks into its booming, earth-shaking riff a couple minutes in, frontman Yannis Philippakis bellowing his soon-to-be-trademark battle cry of “I can’t get enough space” over a chaotic hurricane of noise, we know we’re in for a ride.
From the start, Holy Fire is a record that demands to be played at maximum volume. Those who have invested in pricey car stereos or high quality headphones will find a lot to love here, a sonic feast to sink into and get lost in with each listen. The high-rise atmosphere of “Everytime” blends U2-esque “helicopter” guitars with modern dance-floor textures, while the more balladic “Late Night” remains rich with deep bass tones as it crescendos to a near-orchestral peak, a dirty guitar solo flitting through the right speaker. “Out of the Woods” continues the U2 comparisons, its foregrounded musical flourishes landing somewhere between the iconic keyboard riff of “New Year’s Day” and the church-filling symphonies of The Unforgettable Fire. And the glorious “Bad Habit” rotates between moments of full-blown club-rock and pure, yelping desolation, Philippakis’ reverb-soaked vocals and drummer Jack Bevan’s rapidfire fills marking the changes.
Undoubtedly, a good deal of Holy Fire’s success is owed to the production team of Flood and Alan Moulder, longtime vets who have previously worked together on records from the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, The Killers, and U2. But where each of those acts have swung towards the big leagues with massive choruses, revealing earnestness, and near-mythical pop star swagger, Foals take a different route. And that’s not to say that Holy Fire is bereft of hooks, since plenty of its best songs have the potential to lodge themselves in your brain. “My Number” is particularly catchy, bouncing along with an earworm backing vocal hook destined to soundtrack the next wave of cellphone commercials. And the Mutemath-esque “Milk & Black Spiders” gets more exhilarating with each passing second, the band slowly cranking up the volume to swallow the song’s melodic refrain in their swell.
But more often, Foals forego traditional verse-chorus dynamics for the arty complexity of their math rock lineage or the sweaty spontaneity of their EDM influences. The meandering song structures do wonders for the band—see the icy, chaotic rush of “Providence,” or the jagged, thumping heartbeat-guitar bleeps that mark the sepulchral closer, “Moon”—to the point where Philippakis’ repetitious, often cliche-ridden lyrics are rendered almost inconsequential. There may come a day when Foals shoot for the emotional bombast of the stadium-baiting bands they are so clearly trying to emulate here. But for now, they’re merely peddlers of sonic splendor, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Still, Holy Fire is the kind of album that could easily run together if used for nothing more than background music. These songs demand attention like they demand volume; they require the space of repeat listens and the privilege of high fidelity audio presentation. But man, as soon as that riff kicks in on “Inhaler” and the song blows wide open, I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to give these guys the time they deserve.