Despite being the biggest band on the planet, there’s still a side of the Foo Fighters that’s somewhat an enigma. They’ve worked their way up the rock ladder – and indeed the music ladder as a whole – to a point where they can comfortably call the world’s largest stadiums home, but they have never been complacent and have always shown a willingness to try new things, something which other bands of their size have neglected to embrace – AC/DC have built their entire career around it. It’s never appeared more than on Sonic Highways, their eighth studio album – eight tracks recorded in eight different studios across the U.S., with each one inspired by the musical heritage and the band’s experiences in the city it was recorded in (which is explored deeper in the band’s eight-part documentary series Sonic Highways). All of this renders Sonic Highways as not just an album, but also an exploration of America’s rich and vibrant musical history.
Appropriately then, Sonic Highways is a very American sounding album, nabbing bits and pieces from classic rock and Americana and mixing them in with the core Foo Fighters sound. Having said that, there are few instances where it seems that the band’s nationwide jaunt has inspired any huge changes. Where new sounds are embraced prove to be the album’s most exciting moments – the Skynyrd-tinged Congregation is another world-beater to potentially add to their arsenal, while the brassy bounce that New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band add to In The Clear makes the song’s near-faultless power pop even better. Elsewhere, The Feast And The Famine‘s meaty, stop-start riffs are probably the closest the band will ever come to fully embracing their love of Washington DC’s hardcore punk scene, with the inclusion of the legendary Bad Brains on the track providing further evidence.
That’s not to say that the rest of the album is bad – Something From Nothing feeds Dio’s Holy Diver through the Red Hot Chili Peppers filter with its driving, chunky bassline, while the two-songs-in-one dynamic of What Did I Do? / God As My Witness sees both parts dripping with Southern grit and their customary stadium-bothering aesthetic, all before the titanic seven-minute epic I Am A River rounds the album off on its grandest gesture, with crescendoing swathes of strings, though still sounding like Foo Fighters. Basically, Sonic Highways is the Foo Fighters that everyone loves but at their most well-rounded, with Dave Grohl putting in his best vocal performance in years thanks to the typically sterling production from Butch Vig.
What lets Sonic Highways down is that the potential to be an epic isn’t there. At 42 minutes long, it’s the shortest album the band have ever put out, and at only eight tracks long, it feels a lot slighter than their previous releases, in that it goes by so much faster. Still, that they’re still able to make albums twenty years into their career that still feel fresh and exciting is a testament to the Foo Fighters’ abilities as musicians. Sure, there may not be an Everlong or a Learn To Fly on Sonic Highways, but it’s good enough to say that the ambitious project that was undergone to make it was worthwhile. Another highly credible entry to the Foo Fighters discography.
For fans of: Lynryd Skynyrd, The Gaslight Anthem, Bruce Springsteen
Words by Luke Nuttall