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Review: “Holy Fire,” an album by Foals

It is rare that an album released in the first two months of a new year is predicted to be one of the best albums of the entire year. “Holy Fire,” the third album from Oxford natives Foals, is one of those rarities. It is produced by Flood and Alan Moulder, who have pushed the group to their limit, culminating in their best record yet.

The past few years have seen Foals’ popularity snowballing as the band has become a veritable phenomenon in the music community for their mix of African and Caribbean rhythms, inimitable guitar work and frontman Yannis Philippakis’ commanding vocals.

However, the most astounding thing about Foals is how seamlessly they have expanded their repertoire and woven in and out of musical styles to dodge the critics’ pigeonholing. The shift from “Antidotes’” skittering guitars and busy drums to “Total Life Forever’s” ambient, mournful mood was a shock to listeners, one that instantly grounded much respect in the music world for their creative fluidity. “Holy Fire” sees the group storming ahead, incorporating the best elements of past efforts — emphatic grooves, thickly intertwined guitars — and blends them with new elements. Distortion, formerly absent, have now been added in earnest, along with some thoroughly masculine, gritty vocals previously unheard of from the group, adding up to a much heavier, more powerful sound.

“Inhaler,” the album’s first single, is a prime example. It features a riff worthy of hard rock fame and Philippakis’ most throat-shredding vocals to date, creating a booming, confrontational gem.

As if “Inhaler” were not enough of a shock, it is immediately followed by the pure dance-pop of “My Number,” with lyrics to match: “You don’t have my number; we don’t need each other now.” It seems that if “Total Life Forever” marked a period of melancholy for Philippakis and Foals, “Holy Fire” marks the inevitable next step of acceptance and bravado.

The variety continues, with “Late Night” slowly building in intensity and culminating in an honest-to-God guitar solo, and “Providence,” a track reminiscent of 1990s funk-rock à la Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The album ends with “Moon,” a yearning exhale of a song, exemplifying more perhaps than any other song on the album the shift Foals have made with “Holy Fire.” The group’s YouTube channel features a video clip to go along with the song, but in place of the shadows that defined their previous works, we are instead presented with the image of a sun-drenched Greek town, followed by the band gathered together in a candlelit studio, delicately plucking out the sparse track.

This is how the group has evolved. They have matured past the excessive experimentalism of their first record and outgrown the moodiness of their second, coming out of the darkness and into the light. They have fully come into their own on “Holy Fire,” all the while retaining their idealism and creativity and — most importantly — their artistic integrity. When the blogs and magazines are making their best of lists for 2013, you can be certain that Foals will be on there, working on the next one.