Friendly Fires have come a long way from the heady days when their self-titled debut burst out of the late-noughties scene, amongst the wreckage of nu-rave, nu-gaze and other fads long-since left redundant; a distant time when people seemed to have nothing better to do than care about The Klaxons, even encouraging them with a Mercury Music Prize.
St Albans trio Friendly Fires skipped around the fringes of the blaze, with their melodic, multi-layered take on electronic indie-dance, effect-laden guitars and the kind of percussive breaks that needed an octopus or two to perform them. The boys justly flirted with Mercury and Brit nominations themselves after their 2008 bow, while frontman Ed Macfarlane’s snake-hipped dancing conjured images of a post-millennium David Gahan on amphetamines. Heady days, indeed.
Follow-up Pala appeared in 2011, as a much underrated and equally well-conceived electro-pop classic; full of more big choruses, synth washes and rhythmic shimmies setting their sights on global horizons. Everything seemed rather lovely. Then nothing. Then still nothing. Friendly Fires went missing, presumed dead.
The band’s reappearance last year for what appeared to be little more than a tentative toe-dipping live headliner, albeit one of Brixton Academy proportions, teased at the prospect of renewed engagement, another musical tour of duty. It has now duly arrived, in the shape of Inflorescent, Friendly Fires’ first long-play outing for 8 years.
“What we have is a more retrospective sound, resounding with touches from no less than four decades of floor-fillers; the kind of music that the band admit to having rediscovered while rebuilding their relationships with each other.”
Long gone are the shoegaze flourishes, nu-romantic quirks and high-in-the-mix percussion but the good news is that Macfarlane, along with his collaborators Edd Gibson and Jack Savidge have reconnected somewhere in the extended hiatus to create a straight-up and direct pop album which is still full of trademark beats and melodic hooks. Any fans hoping for some of the envelope-pushing ideas from their debut and Pala will be sorely disappointed, but that’s clearly not the Fires’ objective with this new bunch of songs. What we have is a more retrospective sound, resounding with touches from no less than four decades of floor-fillers; the kind of music that the band admit to having rediscovered while rebuilding their relationships with each other in the lead-up to Inflorescent’s creation. The album’s name, calling to mind a collection of floral blooms from a single stem, works symbolically either for this specific project or for the dancefloor lineage that these tracks hark back to.
Lead singles Love Like Waves and Heaven Let Me In are the sound of a band playing to their strengths without playing it safe; both exemplify a spirit of classic Friendly Fires. The former takes its title from the three words that Macfarlane, Gibson and Savidge took back with them as a starting point to Macfarlane’s parents’ garage in St Albans. From there, the song germinated in the same fashion that Paris and Jump in the Pool had all those years ago. The band brought Disclosure on board to help mould their idea for Heaven Let Me In into something glorious. Nodding pointedly to Spiller’s Groovejet, the song builds through its irresistible mantra to pure polished euphoria.
Silhouettes is a deft summer soundtrack; no doubt a welcome addition to any Mediterranean small-hours bar playing music too loudly, too late into the night. Again, it’s predictable in some respects, but that’s not a criticism, more of a comfort that Friendly Fires are back and haven’t been knocked off their game. Elsewhere, Can’t Wait Forever takes its lead from the first-generation discotheques; Macfarlane’s instruction to “shake your body down” being nothing less than pure theft from Odyssey’s 1980 number one single, Use It Up and Wear It Out. He sounds like he’s enjoying himself too much to start picking holes in the lyrics; after all, it’s not designed to be a cerebral album. The track’s four-to-the-floor, house piano, horns and hedonism: a fair summation of what the band want to pull together across these 11 tracks.
“The shuffling snares, minor key changes and offbeat electronic motifs [of Run the Wild Flowers] hint at the band gradually regaining the confidence to find their own identity.”
There is some enticing work to be found elsewhere on the album too. Offline takes Friendly Fires into George Michael solo-groove territory while the off-kilter chord changes of retro rattler Sleeptalking skulk around intently with mid-80s big-production bravado. Perhaps the best of the heap is Run the Wild Flowers, continuing a tradition of thumping Friendly Fires album closers. The shuffling snares, minor key changes and offbeat electronic motifs hint at the band gradually regaining the confidence to find their own identity at the end of an album which re-treads a lot of history. Perhaps a hint that this may be the start of chapter two, rather than a quick return and final goodbye?
Only the cover of Charles B and Adonis’ Lack of Love feels somewhat out of place on Inflorescent. Trailed in advance of the album somewhat over-apologetically as a “palette cleanser,” Friendly Fires’ version is just too earnest a recreation of the acid-house original on an album already laden with retrospective homage. Its inclusion might have been logical between the first and second halves of Inflorescent, but its programming two thirds of the way in does more to disrupt the momentum than anything.
Small gripes such as that aside, while Inflorescent is perhaps not the returning-conquerors monster that it could have been, it’s an undoubtedly solid romp through the ages of dancefloor pop which suggests – if nothing else – a rebirth of the band’s love of music-making. On Inflorescent, that love is perhaps more lavished on the band’s influences than themselves. They may still need to rediscover their artistic courage to fully blossom again as they once did, but with this album, Friendly Fires have thrust a bloody decent set of roots into the ground.
Words: Iain Dalgleish @fishski