When Foals took their first, unfaltering steps into the spotlight six years ago, they seemed intent on circumventing previous rock practices. The Oxford-formed outfit's intricate guitar ethos was influenced more by minimal techno than traditional rock bands; they stared at the floor rather a lot during live shows and even left a couple of popular singles off their debut album, Antidotes.
The first version of that album, produced by the in-demand New Yorker Dave Sitek, was infamously rejected by the band due to it sounding "like it was recorded in the Grand Canyon". Sitek's reaction to this third album might be interesting, then, as ironically that seems to be exactly the approach they have now embraced. Gone are the crisp, clever rhythms; in come great reverberating guitar riffs and bass lines while the vocals suggest the plaintive cries of a man lost deep within a mighty valley.
Foals had widened their sound with great success on their second album, 2010's Total Life Forever, but clearly made a conscious decision to up the horsepower here. Hired to produce Holy Fire were Flood and Alan Moulder, best known together for their work with the dark stadium rockers Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails.
Those projects were emboldened by hugely charismatic, slightly maniacal singers, however. Foals' frontman Yannis Philippakis has little of that presence and sounds somewhat forlorn throughout. "I'm an animal just like you," he yelps repeatedly but unconvincingly over the mighty beats of Providence, while on the otherwise epic Late Night, the diminutive singer tries manfully to locate his metaphorical leather trousers - with little success. Perhaps tellingly, Flood and Moulder often used surreptitious methods to attain their desired sound, asking the band to make as-live demo recordings while always intending to use those versions on the album. A few more vocal takes might have been advisable.
Not that Holy Fire is by any means a bad record and it gets off to an encouraging beginning with a windswept Prelude then the Chili Peppers-style funk of Inhaler, although Philippakis's opening line is hardly encouraging: "Sticks and stones may break my bones," he warbles, as if intending to add the finished lyrics later.
Indeed, many of these tracks settle into an enjoyable groove late on, suddenly liberated once the awkward vocals are out of the way. Foals may be loath to admit it, but this oddly unbalanced album reeks of a hoary old rock cliché: musical differences.
Foals Holy Fire (Transgressive)