Album Review: Foals – What Went Down
What Went Down (Transgressive)
Foals’ music hardly cries originality, but one can’t begrudge that they are now the keepers of their own signature sound. Since 2010’s Total Life Forever, they have worked to harvest an edgy, muscular form of rock that appeals to the indie disco, heavy in mood and scale, if not vulnerability. Having progressed to become the indie fan’s stadium outfit du jour, they are now something of a benchmark against which other British upstarts are measured. There is no ambiguity or mystery surrounding each new record: we all understand what a Foals album should sound like by this point. And in that regard, What Went Down qualifies as a success: another release that sees them maintaining a firm grip on their perch. The results are as one would expect: a continuation of Holy Fire‘s guitar-heavy attack, with the occasional hip-swinging groove stirred in to keep the waters warm. Yannis Philippakis and bandmates have taken this mantle of a big-league rock troupe with the gravity of a defender of the realm receiving his sabre, and it’s an approach that sees them frequently tripping over their own feet in pursuit of greatness.
That said, there are moments on What Went Down where Foals nail their own trademarks so confidently that it’s hard not to be impressed. The title track is their most convincing distillation of thunderous fury yet, squaring up to previous apex ‘Inhaler’ and trampling it beneath five minutes of high-octane aggression. The final distorted crescendo – nicely building from a blurry mid-section – effortlessly radiates the kind of heat that Philippakis and co. have been threatening to wield for years. ‘Mountain at My Gates’ is a much more streamlined follow-up, but stronger still: the kind of bouncy bustle that the group can toss off in their sleep by now, but intoxicating in execution, chopping up its own rhythm to spring into a spirited finale that fans of ‘My Number’ will lap up like nectar.
The steady hands of producer James Ford have helped to guide the Oxford quintet the last few increments to what sounds like their dream aesthetic: glistening guitar melodies, raw ’70s riffery, and tight, snaking rhythms – all two-stepping around Philippakis’ central totem. The slower number are glossier, the rockers even more visceral, and each element polished to emanate the mythical sweep they’ve been gunning for since 2010. With this full realisation of sound and vision, Foals have taken to their performances with even greater confidence. ‘Albatross’ (an unsmiling Coldplay) and ‘Snake Oil’ (’20th Century Boy’ with less glam, more yowl) are both neat additions to enormodome-baiting setlists. The band’s collective appreciation of space is sharpened too, with ‘Birch Tree’ and ‘Night Swimmers’ prioritising patience and texture over fiery bravado. There’s a genuine dance-friendly swagger to the latter, whose lean guitar riff is played late in the game, adding a lustiness to the song’s fidgety energy.
In terms of songwriting, too, Foals still cleave hungrily to the “go big or go home” adage, and within the first minute alone, Philippakis has namechecked vultures, unforgiving landscapes, and the burying of emotions and organs alike. By ‘Mountain at My Gates’, he is on an all-terrain quest for the object of his desire, and spread over these ten songs, it’s a search that never seems to cease. Whether he’s in the throes of unquenchable lust, thwarted by rough terrain, or – comically simply – just running late (‘Lonely Hunter’), Philippakis is a man unable to attain contentment. Perhaps bolstered by the success of Holy Fire, the frontman is an electrifying presence when caught in his most passionate throes, able to justify the hurricanes of hyperbole that the group do little to abate. However, just as he can prove the band’s MVP, he is just as frequently its Achilles’ heel, as the album’s uninspired lyric sheet demonstrates. The most glaring problems arise when Philippakis combines his top-of-the-mountain gusto to comically mundane sentiments like “you caught the bus and I caught the train”, causing any visions of grandeur to fall flat. This particular song – the rain-sodden ‘Give it All’ – fails to convince even in its most brash, sucked dry of drama even with Philippakis recounting being “bloody from a fistfight”. Their best moments aren’t immune from such clangers, either: when Philippakis boasts “I drive a car without the brakes!” on ‘Mountain at My Gates’, the aggression seems like nothing but laughably empty braggadocio. It’s a flaw that dulls their appeal, and saps further life from the band’s driest moments, such as closer ‘A Knife in the Ocean’, which stretches itself to seven minutes, apparently just for the sake of closing the record with a Big Bang.
For all its flaws, What Went Down is significant for unabashedly cementing Foals’ style and status, securing their position at the forefront of British big-league rock. For all their big talk in pre-release interviews, the band haven’t budged from the path they started to carve for themselves five years ago. Over three albums, they have stuck to – and arguably enhanced – their core strengths, while also carrying with them the same weaknesses that have always felled them: lacklustre lyrics, turbulent quality, a propensity for po-faced bluster. Where established fans and festival crowds will soak it up, the naysayers will remain unmoved. Foals have settled into a stylistic comfort zone, and given the rapturous commercial reception that What Went Down has already received, don’t expect them to canter into new pastures any time soon.
“Time holds no fear when I turn around to face it.”
Posted on September 11, 2015, in The Music World and tagged Albatross, Album Review, Birch Tree, Foals, Holy Fire, James Ford, Lonely Hunter, Mountain At My Gates, Transgressive, What Went Down, Yannis Philippakis. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.