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Foals – ‘What Went Down’

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foals wwd cover artWhilst Foals’ frenetic, math-rock debut Antidotes, released in 2008, contained a number of insistent, catchy tunes, and their 2010 follow-up Total Life Forever showed signs of a more consistent, cohesive record, it wasn’t until the Oxford-based five-piece’s third LP, Holy Fire, that the band’s obvious talents finally made a noticeable incision into the public conscience. The album was not only brimful of accessibility  (see indie-pop gem ‘My Number’, ‘Everytime’, ‘Bad Habit’, and ‘Out Of The Woods’) but also remarkable texture (in the form of ‘Late Night’, ‘Milk & Black Spiders’, and ‘Stepson’) and even calculated force – the indefatigable ‘Inhaler’, and ‘Providence’. This impressive record reached number on in the UK albums chart, and number one on this writer’s end-of-year Best Albums list. Therefore, expectations were high following the announcement of Foals’ fourth album, What Went Down.

‘Mountain At My Gates’ follows ‘What Went Down’, and if the latter is the ‘Inhaler’ of this album, then the former is this record’s ‘My Number’

The album begins with its imposing title-track and lead single: a clear declaration of intent. The infusion of odd-time bars is unique in such a direct sounding song, but effective, and aids in making ‘What Went Down’ an almost frightening introduction to the newest Foals LP. Frequent stabs in the music act as hooks of sorts, in between constant, driving drums and bass, and snarling guitars. The band soon launches in to the first of a number of massive choruses on this album, and all of these elements – plus Yannis Philippakis’ largely jargonistic lyrics – make this track a fierce opener, the only relent coming in the form of softer keys during the song’s breakdown. The track is probably the heaviest this album gets, and – whilst not the most colourful song the band has ever written – makes for a formidable start to the record.

‘Mountain At My Gates’ follows ‘What Went Down’, and if the latter is the ‘Inhaler’ of this album, then the former is this record’s ‘My Number’, with a strong pop sensibility channelled into a fairly typical Foals indie mould. It is the album’s most accessible moment, led by choppy rhythm guitar and a bright lead riff. A simple vocal melody also augments the easy nature of the song, and it is a welcome inclusion on the LP, given that certain areas of the album are more subtle, and perhaps more difficult to comprehend immediately. ‘Birch Tree’ is possibly the closest the band gets to replicating the pop feel of ‘Mountain At My Gates’, and thus it is another pleasant listen, with an easy danceability, showing that while Foals are not famed for mainstream appeal, they certainly do have capabilities in that sphere. ‘Night Swimmers’ similarly steps in this direction, yet it is not quite as compelling as its counterparts.

‘London Thunder’ is not only the most stunning song on the record, but arguably the most beautiful song that Foals have ever written

‘Give It All’ displays the first hints of the more textured, tender side of the record, with patient building, wistful lyrics and beautiful chorus melodies weaving together over serene synth;  “Give me the way it could have been…”, Yannis yearns with a resonant melancholy. The song also provides a timely change of pace in the album’s track-listing, before the intense ‘Albatross’ hits. Just like its predecessor, the song builds over its running time, however, it doesn’t seem as carefully crafted as ‘Give It All’, and subsequently its climax doesn’t hit as emphatically as one might hope. Still, the song has its strengths, its tone being one of them. ‘Snake Oil’ follows, and proves another heavy moment on the record, as compressed drums and synth give way to a distorted riff, heavy with attitude, akin to Yannis’ vocals. Again, it is a welcome change of pace, and the sort of tune that Foals’ fans will appreciate greatly.

However, it is the closing trio of songs on What Went Down that offer up the album’s strongest moments; ‘Lonely Hunter’ is another of the more accessible tunes on the LP, and a potential single, with syncopated drums tiding along the track beneath shimmering guitars and Yannis’ apology, “Time for me to say I’m sorry… for all the things I said but didn’t mean”. His delivery of the vague “things I said” comes across as insincere, but probably intentionally so, conjuring up a complex but compelling emotion within the song. It follows ‘London Thunder’, which is not only the most stunning song on the record, but arguably the most beautiful song that Foals have ever written, also. “I lost my mind in San Francisco, at a worn out disco”, mourns Yannis forlornly, as he sings about the struggles of spending so much time away from home and on planes, only to return to the abysmal weather of London, and the “sound of sirens”. Beneath him, the band constructs an entrancing soundtrack on a bed of calm keys, with guitar licks flickering intermittently, and occasional washy synth rearing its head. Subtle drums later enter, but never interfere with the delicacy that makes ‘London Thunder’ so astonishing.

The heavier moments hit hard, the poppier moments are as likeable as anything they’ve done before, and the softer, more textured moments are as beautiful as ever

Finally, most recent single ‘A Knife In The Ocean’ arrives to close out the record, with jangling guitars ringing over one of the finest drum grooves that Jack Bevan has ever written, before a mesmeric drop drags the listener in to a remarkably vast chorus. Again, Yannis reflects morosely on the past, asking “What became of the things we once believed?”. Some might wonder what came of the erratic (yet loveable) nature of Foals’ early songs, but few would dare complain, as long as the band continues to deliver tracks as seismic and sprawling as this.

On the whole, it could be said that What Went Down does not quite match the quality of its predecessor – and Foals’ career highlight thus far – Holy Fire, however, that was always going to be a difficult task, and, with that in mind, the band comes admiringly close with their fourth LP. The songs, and album on the whole, constitute the kind of intricate, consummate songwriting that is evident in the band’s recent releases, so it also feels like a natural progression from the last two records. The heavier moments hit hard, the poppier moments are as likeable as anything they’ve done before, and the softer, more textured moments are as beautiful as ever. With What Went Down, Foals have crafted another undeniably impressive record.

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