Foals have blazed a trial across the indie scene since they first blew out of Oxford with their addictive brand of math rock and debut album Antidotes. Since then they have evolved through their following two releases, with their last offering, Holy Fire, exploding out to critical acclaim and as an exciting new evolution of Foals. Now on their fourth studio album, What Went Down has been teased with tracks that promise a similar kind of fire and energy.
It is no mean feat to consistently produce albums that are both successful and progressive, and in working with producer James Ford on What Went Down, Foals have placed themselves in expert hands. Known for his long time collaboration with one of the most impressively consistent and evolutionary acts of this century, Arctic Monkeys, Ford would seem like a good partner for a band facing down a much anticipated fourth album. Recorded in La Fabrique studio, in the same French town that was home to Vincent Van Gogh and the asylum that housed him after he cut off his own ear in a fit of frustration. What Went Down doesn’t so much capture a sense of mania, but switches between calm and hell fire in a schizophrenic fashion.
Tearing into life with title track What Went Down, an off-kilter organ intro launches in big riffs and a frenzied drum beat, building energy like Foals are psyching themselves up for the fight. Leaning heavily on full fat bass lines, Yannis Philippakis thrashes out accusatory choruses, straining his vocals to new desperation. A panting breakdown is rounded out with a hymnal feel before building out of manic mutterings that feel like a second coming of Smells Like Teen Spirit. It is a massive opener and sets the bar high, though unfortunately Foals don’t always manage to sustain the momentum.
Mountain At My Gates follows strongly, marrying earlier versions of the band like Olympic Airways tropical feels with the pounding energy of Inhaler. Expertly changing pace, it is master song writing with a gorgeously urgent guitar solo to match Philippakis’ lyrics, and once again culminating in a soaring, frenzied finish. Lower moments Birch Tree and Albatross fall a little flat, somewhere in no man’s land between Foal’s new found fire and a reversion to type with glittery math rock tropes and tropical guitar licks. Albatross hits just short of a tribal solemnity that would have been a powerful moment in the album, touching on artists like Fever Ray but without the depth. Give It All is a good slow burn, again channelling hymnals with falsetto vocals, prayer like lyrics and surrounding synth washes. Foals are perhaps a little too reliant on thundering builds to round of tracks across the album. Their best effort out of lower tracks is the pensive London Thunder, beautiful with delicate air rush effects and delicately placed guitar licks. Thought provoking and anthemic, it is stronger for a softer finish.
Another stand out track is definitely Snake Oil; opening with huge industrial beats, reminiscent of 80’s action-lite movies. A gorgeous diesel bass line with the vocals stretched over calls up The Stooges and The Hives. You really get behind Foals on this one, carried along by that pumping bass line. Descending into a blistering wall of sound, gut wrenching screams lurk behind reverb and bastardised strings.
Not unexpectedly Foals go for the big finish with A Knife In The Ocean, another gauntlet to run at nearly seven minutes. Travelling beats and a halting hesitation, the final track has a more settled feel. If What Went Down is madness, A Knife In The Ocean is either emergence of acceptance. A track to get lost in, relentless guitar wails drive home the finish with one final, desperate struggle from vocals that have been pushed further than on any previous releases.
They may have balked occasionally on What Went Down, with a few disappointing retreats to safety. But those moments cower in between some truly glorious tracks, and yet more breath taking songwriting from Foals.