Decades ago in an island not too far away (just enough to induce jet lag), young, up-and-coming English rock bands produced lush rock anthems without breaking a sweat as though this was de rigueur. Pieces filled with saccharine, sweet harmonics (an aural Boston Creme) and precious lyrics that made one want to join thousands of sweaty screaming fans in a
sing shout a-long with hands and/or lighter raised in the air. I guess over time the anthem became passe, a rock trope designated for the dustbin that young bands eschewed. It isn’t coincidence that around the same time the nascent dance scene started creeping into popular consciousness of the younger set and art-rock bands like Radiohead started to deconstruct songs into beguilingly elaborate compositions filled with existential and quizzical emotional resonance without resorting to formulaic hooks. A trend? Artistic shift? The inevitable evolution of an art form? Yes, all of the above. Of course there are definitely bands from across the Atlantic that continue to engage in these large scale majestic (and deftly produced) rock anthems such as Coldplay, Muse, or Keane, for example. Yet, with few exceptions in their collected oeuvres, I’ve always felt something lacking, a missing core. All are technically competent and consummate musicians. And, can you really say their music doesn’t “resonate” when each has probably sold millions of records? I’ll defer answering that question in my efforts not to be a “hater”.
Let’s focus on a group of lads from Oxford who have weaved together a confounding yet amazingly pleasant mixture of rock motifs that verge on the cusp of anthemic.
But, how can something be on the verge of anthemic? It either is or it isn’t, right? A valid point, I admit. Foals make the type of music that inspires communal and shared experiences. Almost without exception all the tracks on Holy Fire, the group’s third record, call for people to congregate and gyrate in unison, into the now. It is as though the songs can’t exist in a solitary, headphones/earbuds only vacuum. In contrast, the work of say the Arcade Fire or Radiohead draws hundreds or thousands of fans to packed arenas but despite the mass of humanity, their songs (brilliant and at times transcendent) feel strangely singular and intimate, as though you the listener were alone in sea of bodies. There is no alone here. Foals’ Holy Fire calls for a party, a concert, and a giant pit of people singing and dancing, sort of like an LCD Soundsystem show. It’s not love and flowers in the field or aggressive body slamming with flannel, but it has the quality of unadulterated groovy hedonism.
Given this as foreword, it won’t strike one as odd to say that the record reminds me at certain times of Faith No More and Mars Volta and at others instances of The Rapture remixed by Cut Copy. It is equal parts Prog rock-metal and electro-clash punk; a varied mix of ostensibly contradictory styles and tempos done without seeming insincere, inauthentic, or trying to be something it isn’t. Although at first the transition from “Inhaler”, a brash and abrasive hard/metal track, to the percussion, electronic beats and hooks of “My Number” might raise a curious eyebrow, working through the entirety of Holy Fire you realize that this band has a wide skill set and aural palette that cannot be hemmed in by sticking to one “basic” sound. But, really, this should come as no surprise; memorable records shift gears in profoundly surprising ways within and between songs in a manner that brings pleasure through contrast. To this day, I think what gave Nirvana’s Nevermind such a broad appeal was that it brought together so many strains of popular and independent rock from the 60s to the 80s into one long play disc; it was almost a mixtape for music nerds but also had a little something for everyone. (Note: I’m not suggesting this is on par with Nevermind.) In our age of “niche” music cultures and sub-cultures, a polymorphous “sound” is a rather adventurous and bold move because it relies on people willing to stretch their music comfort zones. For example, I am hard pressed to find many folks I know who would be as happy attending a Faith No More show as dancing to Cut Copy. (Not surprising those that do fit this criteria are some of my closest friends.) It also requires the ability to musically bob and weav through tracks with the dexterity of a Chris Paul or Kyrie Irving (for the non sports fans two rather impressive young basketball players). In the case of Holy Fire, Foals accomplish it with yeoman like craftsmanship putting together songs that just call to be sung at the top of one’s lungs.
I’ll be waiting to join you.