Foals used to make exciting music. The Oxford five-piece released their debut album Antidotes in 2008, and their vibrant blend of math rock technicality, dance punk energy, and catchy commerciality was infectious. Foals were closely aligned with a mid ’00s wave of young British bands who pioneered an energetic blend of indie rock and various danceable sub-genres of electronic music and punk. One of the most exciting live acts of their movement, Foals toured Antidotes to great success over the span of a couple of years.
The sophomore record Total Life Forever followed in 2010, recorded in wild, snow-clad Sweden. In the maturation of their signature sound, Foals turned out a great collection of songs which nonetheless lost some of the unique spark which had made Antidotes so memorable. The youthful exuberance was gone, replaced by a particular brand of self-aware artistry. 2013’s Holy Fire was produced by the legendary duo of Flood and Alan Moulder, but aside from a few incredible singles that counted amongst the best songs of their career, the record was largely a disappointment. Eminently forgettable songs padded out the tracklist, and for all their obvious talent Foals were unable to consistently reignite their spark.
Fourth record What Went Down arrives amidst promises of being their heaviest, most intense work yet (as told to NME). Recorded in Provence, France, with James Ford (one half of electronic duo Simian Mobile Disco, and the super producer behind Arctic Monkeys and Florence and the Machine), What Went Down presents a stripped-down version of Foals to the world. Incorporating the buzzy, distorted aggression and raw power of garage rock into their funky indie formula, many of these songs hit with a punch previously seen only during the band’s live shows.
“I buried my heart in a hole in the ground/ With the lights and the roses and the cowards downtown/ They threw me a party, there was no one around/ They tried to call my girl but she could not be found,” sings frontman Yannis Philippakis on the storming title track. Meaty guitar riffs, thundering drums, and earth-shaking bass power of with ferocious intensity. Philippakis’ voice, with its unique, permanently stretched timbre, sounds more urgent and unrestrained than ever before. Philippakis has said that he was inspired by Pixies' Frank Black while recording What Went Down, and the homage shows; Philippakis conjures rhythmic grunts, screams, howls, and yawps as though the irrepressible force of the track being channelled through him. His voice is stretched to its absolute boundary during the powerful climactic rush of the track, as churning detuned riffs spiral into a storm of wild noise. What Went Down is a powerful song; a genuine statement-maker to open the album with.
Second single Mountain At My Gates is a tamer beast. Playing off the band’s innate gift for unusual rhythmic patterns and unconventionally funky songwriting, a large part of the song’s joy comes from the tasteful breaks of Philippakis’ lead guitar. These inspired guitar lines split up the verses and help the song reach an emotive climax as the intensity crescendos towards the end. Though Mountain At My Gates lacks the bruising intensity of the title track, it is a more approachable single in the vein of Late Night, and a reminder of Foals’ gift for crafting melodic, pleasant indie, infused as always with their own unique twist.
A few relaxing, harmless tracks follow. Already, the rawness of the title track feels disregarded in favour of danceable background music. Foals don’t seem to realise that over the course of their last three albums, lacklustre album cuts have consistently meandered away from each album’s primary direction. Total Life Forever and Holy Fire could have both been extraordinary albums if they had maintained a sense of focus throughout, and lived up to the potential hinted at by promising singles. Ultimately, both records meandered in directionless pleasantry for a reasonable portion of their running length, and What Went Down disappointingly returns to this formula after a couple of great opening tracks. Though Albatross builds some promising intensity towards its end, this culminates in nothing. What Went Down dangerously flirts with repeating the dismal second-half issues that Holy Fire suffered from.
Snake Oil is the only other song to truly fulfill the title track’s promise. Sounding part Black Keys, part Queens of the Stone Age, and yet assuredly Foals, it’s a great song. Dramatically detuned riffs, lumbering drums, and thickly distorted bassline lay the foundation for Philippakis to revisit his Frank Black-isms again to great effect. Aside from some background textural elements, electronic instrumentation has largely disappeared from Foals' sound; in its place is a towering behemoth of sound and fury. Snake Oil is both a future festival-packing crowd favourite and a frustrating reminder of how great a truly heavy record from Foals could have been.
“On a hot summer’s day/ Where only we know the way/ To the cool blue lagoon/ Where we sleep until noon/ … We swim under the moon/ In the cool blue lagoon/ And you count up all my scars/ Crumble them into stars,” Philippakis sings on Night Swimmers, and his unfortunate knack for needlessly rhyming obvious word with obvious word is painfully evident. “My heart’s an old pole dancer/ Troubled romancer, you know/ It’s a subway chancer/ Question with no answer,” he sings elsewhere on the sleep-inducing Birch Tree. “My heart’s an old black panther/ Corrupted financer, you know,” and the worst part is that one gets the impression that the Oxford-educated Philippakis takes the - apparently - astounding poetical depth of these lines all-too-seriously.
Night Swimmers does manage to twice shift into a pleasingly intense guitar-driven breakdown before its end, though these passages last all of thirty seconds. The rest of the track is dull, uninspired territory that Foals have explored before.
Meanwhile, the wonderful London Thunder is a perfect example of how well Foals can handle quiet downtempo songs. Much as Spanish Sahara did on Total Life Forever, London Thunder serves as an exemplar of melancholic indie balladry done right. Atmospheric and tender, London Thunder is a moving moment of downtime amongst the stormy rock tracks and bland filler cuts of What Went Down. Guided by gentle keyboard chords that give way to rolling bass notes and echoing electronic drums, Philippakis bemoans: “Lost my mind in San Francisco/ Worn out disco and temper’s cool/ There’s no water/ There’s no sound/ Will you come around?”
Final song A Knife in the Ocean is a strong, slow end to the album that nevertheless lacks any lasting impact. Foals aim for the overdone totally epic closing track™ to reasonable effect, with soaring guitar slides, rising waves of synthetic noise, and busy drums leading Philippakis’ echoing chants to the album’s end. Yet one can't help but feel that the earnestness of the emotion conveyed throughout Foals’ music is always evident, but often falls short of reaching the heartstrings or moving us in the way these sorts of songs should.
It’s sad to see Foals default to remaking the same unexceptional songs that have passed out recent releases. Foals’ contemporary Lykke Li made some of her best music during her transition from fun, kooky indie-pop singer to dark, serious songstress, but she lost the spark that originally made her great. Foals went through the same process, and the effervescent energy of their early music has been lacking over the past two albums.
Nonetheless, Foals’ issues with consistency and directional focus have been their biggest handicap. A band who turned out an album of songs at the calibre of London Thunder, Spanish Sahara, Mountain At My Gates, and Late Night would have produced a lasting classic. Alternatively, an album of tracks like What Went Down, Snake Oil, or heavier Holy Fire highlights like Inhaler and My Number would result in a rockier version of the same. Foals’ curse seems to be their inability to ever truly play to their strength at one extreme or the other. Since the youthful party-going fun of Antidotes, Foals have not made a consistent album. Their last three records have had great rock tracks and great ballads, but not enough of either and far too many middle-of-the-road filler cuts.
As such, What Went Down isn’t the album it should have been. Promised a straight-ahead rock album by one of the UK’s biggest touring bands, What Went Down can’t help but seem like a disappointment when most of the songs are frustratingly bland. The band who have brought us so much great music over the past seven years have still not perfected the art of crafting an entirely cohesive album. While their talent remains as obvious as ever and some of their songs reach stratospheric heights, only time will tell if these foals can one day grow into stallions.
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