Just two years after releasing Holy Fire, Foals are back with What Went Down and it’s a worthy successor.
For me, Foals’ greatest strength is their ability to combine intricacy with immediacy. Throughout their varied discography there have always remained articulate traces of the math roots that made their debut Antidotes such a standout. With What Went Down the band certainly attribute greater weight to the immediacy of their sound, but there is still a good degree of depth to the record – and it makes for an immersive listen.
The band’s frontman, Yannis Philippakis, is as animated in his songwriting and vocal delivery as ever. ‘What Went Down’, the opener of the album, is an unabashed show of force – with this record the singer is taking no prisoners. The song’s simplicity leaves it feeling taut, the insistent drum beat of the verses provides a churned up build to a chorus that can only be described as huge. The instrumental power on show in such tracks is mirrored in the brazen way with which Philippakis divulges flashes of raw emotion; his repetition of ‘When I see a man I see a lion / When I see a man I see a liar’ is delivered with an unignorable intensity.
This massive sound is undoubtedly a result of superb production. Probably best known for his work with the Arctic Monkeys, James Ford took the helm on this record and knocked it out of the park, really bringing out the attention grabbing nature of the band’s music. In particular the drums on the album sound arguably better than on any previous Foals release. On ‘Mountain at My Gates’ the kit perfectly accentuates the track, locking in with the bass whilst elaborating up the dynamics introduced by the guitar parts, and it sounds incredible. Elsewhere on the album prominent drum samples are used to great effect; the introduction of handclaps alongside shuffling snares on ‘Night Swimmers’ brings pop appeal to the arrangement.
However, behind much of the bravado of the early moments of the record it harbours a great deal of isolation and longing. As you might expect from a band which tours extensively, Philippakis engages with the emotional toil of being on the road and being far from loved ones. The duo of songs that herald the close of the album, ‘London Thunder’ and ‘Lonely Hunter’, encapsulate these sentiments. In the former track the frontman conveys his distaste towards constant travelling – ‘I’m on a red eye fly to nowhere good’, and likewise in the latter he addresses a loved one directly – ‘I got lost in foreign lands / Tried to make it back, I hope you understand’. In addition lyrical fragments such as ‘meteor showers by the pool’ are examples of just how arresting Yannis’ songwriting has become. The songs provide an emotional depth that counterbalances the pummeling force with which the album began.
As you would expect these songs also have a more restrained, melodic approach instrumentally. The swelling development of such Foals songs – Holy Fire’s ‘Late Night’ being a fine previous example – makes them truly rewarding . The last three tracks only improve the more they are listened to. Reverby guitar swells and flurries are both present in abundance – arguably the most defining element of the modern indie scene, particularly with regards to the band’s hometown Oxford.
What Went Down also contains a number of straightforward pop songs along the lines of some of their previous singles – does ‘My Number’ ring any bells? Simple synth progressions and infectious guitars round out tracks such as ‘Birch Tree’ and ‘Albatross’. This is in no way a bad thing. Yet, by a fourth record it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have hoped for some more musical exploration and experimentation than what appears on the end result.
If you like Foals you will like this album. If you like indie music you will like this album. If you like rock music you will like this album. However, if you were hoping that What Went Down would herald some dramatic new chapter in the band’s discography you might leave a tad disappointed. It is an album that demands attention, and is one that I’m sure I will be revisiting in the coming months.