When a band releases a single ahead of an anticipated album, it should clue you in on what that album will sound like or at least work as an introduction. When Foals released the propulsive “Inhaler” at the tail end of 2012, it sounded alien for the five-some. Behind a repeating guitar riff and a chunky bassline, singer Yannis Philippakis works his usual whisper into a frenzy, and by the time the chorus kicks in, it’s a full-on scream, a sound that his bandmates rise up to meet, more like a fireball exploding than a rock band from Oxford. But there are cracks in this supposed hard-rock direction; toward the end of the song, Philippakis simply exits, throwing himself across the room to allow an oddly dance-tinged outro to take center stage. The video for the song ends with a room of people dancing, but something’s off; it’s less rave than full-on cult ritual. The rest of Holy Fire is a counter-punch to “Inhaler,” a swerve that then hits all the more powerfully for setting us up with this false start.
Holy Fire is not an album of hard-rocking tunes that move to the beat of a conquering army; instead, this third effort from the band is a study in isolation and lack of inertia. In a way, it takes from what made Frightened Rabbit one of the most stirring bands of the last 10 years: By going internal, Philippakis and co. have crafted an album that forces you to come face to face with your own struggles, with your own fears. A triumphant tone is nonexistent in songs like “Bad Habit,” which is more about defeatism than overcoming, and as the song reaches its climax, it becomes about a rebirth of acceptance. “Wash the stains away,” he sings before the music interrupts his moment of cleansing. Only after an extended segment does our protagonist get his final word in: “Wash the stains away/And I feel quite OK.”
But does he? The affecting “Late Night” finds us back in that dark place, the last night you spend with someone you love before they are taken from you. The song builds from a slow guitar combination to a subdued snare-driven rhythm that’s more of a false sense of security than anything to hold on to. Foals have matured since 2010′s Total Life Forever, but with maturity comes the acceptance of what it will all eventually mean: nothing. “Stay with me, stay with me” is the refrain, and it’s a plea as much as it is a resigned attempt to cling to the past. When you realize that we are all ultimately doomed sets of random particles, the best you can do is organize the chaos. And that’s where the final portion of the album takes us.
“Providence” strives for resonance by using a familiar vocal melody, but the music behind it borrows heavily from a variety of sources, including a bongo that bounces from side to side, disorienting that sense of neutrality that the song previously afforded you. Think of it as a raft after a shipwreck, only the waves have started crashing a few knots away. You know the end is coming, but will it be a painful drown? The answer, true to form, is yet another swerve.
The album’s closer, “Moon,” takes in all of the rage, all of the power, all of the despair—and turns it on its head. The five-minute track features more as a slow burn (you could argue that the term was created just for songs like this) than an apocalypse. It sets you up for a right hook, one last emotional pain before it’s all over, but then it just does not arrive. Instead, Philippakis whispers, resigned to his fate, “It is perfect/It is beautiful still.” This is a fatigued assertion. This is a quiet undoing. This is a Holy Fire, and it is a beautiful dying ember.