Foals' 'What Went Down', Reviewed

Foals daub from a palette of varied hues on 'What Went Down', occasionally with spectacular results.
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Great bands adhere to the principals of a type of musical Darwinism: they adapt, they develop, they evolve. Like their successful animal-world counterparts, the key to their longevity is steady and gradual progression from epoch to epoch. Or — in the case of artists — from album to album.

Since their genesis in the mid-noughties, Foals have shrewdly observed these key Darwinian principles. And in doing so the Oxford quintet has edged steadily forward in the “survival of the fittest” game, shrugging off competition from rivals — mid-tier scavengers like Maximo Park, Bloc Party, and the Maccabees. And now, with their fourth album What Went Down, Foals have finally emerged as the apex predator of Britain’s tangled and treacherous rock ‘n’ roll landscape.

That’s right. What Went Down is a triumph: a thrilling, immersive, occasionally brutal collection of songs. Echoes of Foals’ post-punk and math-rock beginnings reverberate throughout these ten tracks, combined with whispers of their trademark forays into afro-beat and dance-rock. In short: it’s a potent distillation of each style the band has perfected previously.

The album opens ominously, with a solitary and foreboding keyboard drone, before it explodes into being: a miniature echo of the birth of time. The title track and lead single is Foals’ most frenzied track to date, the depth of its filth and fury rivaled only by 2013’s epic single “Inhaler”. Lead singer Yannis Philippakis yelps and yowls throughout like a caged beast hell-bent on freedom — a man shorn of all hope. “I’m a sycophantic animal, I’m a sycophanimal, I’m a sycophantic fool!” he moans during the outro, so broken his words merge seamlessly into one, in the process creating the best portmanteau you’ll hear all year. “What Went Down” is ostensibly a song about the brittle divide that separates man from the beast within, but it also channels the recurrent theme of the LP — overcoming emotional and psychological turbulence.

After the elemental rage of the opener, the propulsive tropical grooves of second single “Mountain At My Gates” arrive like a rainbow after a hurricane. It’s quintessential Foals: intricately layered and eminently danceable indie-rock that gradually swells to a stirring climax.

In the run-up to its release, Foals labeled What Went Down as their heaviest album yet, but temper your expectations if you’re expecting stylistic retreads of the opening bloodbath. The lead single — the most brutal song in Foals’ canon — is the meatiest track on the album, and by some margin. The gulf is similar in scope to that separating “Inhaler” from Holy Fire’s less feral brethren. Though “Snake Oil” flirts at times with filthy, synth-infused hard rock, and “Night Swimmers” features a recurring buzzsaw guitar riff, neither comes close to matching “What Went Down” for its raw urgency and primordial rage.

In fact, the album’s biggest surprise is the soothing “Give It All”, the closest thing to a love song that Foals have written. It’s the LP's most stripped-back number, chronicling the loss of a life-changing love with simple but evocative lyrics ("You caught the bus and I caught the train/ All that remains are words in the rain”). The front man’s singing is set against a soundscape forged from plaintive chords and swirling instrumentation, until the addition of light percussion at the midway point. It's Foals at their most pure and heartfelt, and it’s light-years away from the dense and painstakingly wrought designs of 2008’s Antidotes.

Elsewhere, “Albatross” flirts with brilliance. With its off-kilter chord progressions, portentous keyboards and doom-laden percussion, it’s the album’s most interesting track instrumentally. Lyrically, however, it’s illustrative of a recurrent flaw on What Went Down: clunky and derivative phrasing. Foals have made a conscious effort since 2010’s Total Life Forever to abandon vague and esoteric lyrics — a smart move to make their music emotionally resonant as they opened up their sound. On What Went Down though they occasionally trade cryptic diction for stock metaphors (symbolic albatrosses, mountains, and flights to nowhere), which lessens the emotional impact of the songs.

It’s frustrating because Yannis Philippakis is an able lyricist, who excels when he abandons tried-and-tested clichés. Case in point: the gorgeously bleak and desolate imagery of final track “A Knife In The Ocean”, which paints a blurred portrait of a barren future, one stripped of the innocence and naivety of youth. “All that’s left is the echo of a roaring sea/ Long gone, long gone to the trace of a memory,” he sings with poetic resignation, the lyrics abstract enough for the listener to craft their own conclusion.

A close cousin of live favorite “Spanish Sahara”, “A Knife In The Ocean” is the LP’s tour-de-force — stylistically as well as lyrically — closing proceedings with a psychedelic cloudburst of soaring synths and dazzling vocals. The way Yannis’ voice rises in time with the warped, swelling synth line during the chorus is nothing short of transcendent. Edwin Congreave’s synths ebb and flow around Jack Bevan’s militaristic drumming, creating a mood that’s both sinister and uplifting. It’s the perfect closer, capturing the intensity of their live experience, and further showcasing the bottled-lightning dynamic between the band members.

Foals daub from a palette of varied hues on What Went Down, occasionally with spectacular results. But as an album it’s revisionary as opposed to revolutionary, refining and weaving its DNA from the albums that preceded it. They have a masterpiece inside them, and with each successive release it’s bubbling closer to the surface. On the basis of What Went Down, we won’t have to wait much longer. B PLUS

What Went Down is out now. Get it here