The wait that seemed both tantalizing and agonizing is over for Foals fans. What Went Down dropped on August 28th after the band expertly build the anticipation for their fourth album. Through the first sneak peak with the stellar video of the title track to the final snippet London Thunder they have not put a foot or note wrong. The release of the entire playlist displays an album rises to the challenge of its expectations. What Went Down is one of the strongest releases of the year.
Formed in 2005, Foals was founded by then lead singer Andrew Mears, who later left to concentrate on his band “Youthmovies”. Future Foals members Jack Bevan, Yannis Philippakis were originally in the cult math band “The Edmund Fitzgerald” when they joined Mears. Band mates Walter Gervers and Jimmy Smith were in the local Oxford band “Face Meets Grill”, which they had formed with schoolmates from Abingdon School and released the EP “Hull” before breaking up. As time progressed Foals developed from these two bands to its current line up, with Yannis on guitars and lead vocals, Jack Bevin on drums, percussion and synths, Jimmy Smith on rhythm guitar, Rhodes Synth and vocals, Walter Gervers on bass, samplers, percussion and backing vocals and Edwin Congreave on keyboards, synths and backing vocals. Lightning seemed to have struck twice as yet another stellar band moved successfully out of the confines of the local Oxford music scene and into the greater world at large. Someone must be putting something in the water in old Oxford town?!
The band’s debut Antidotes was released in 2008 and was recorded in NY, NY with producer Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio, the band mixed the album themselves, because they disliked the over the top reverb sound of the first mix. The album performed well in the UK charting #3 and had some success in Japan, France and Australia. The follow up album, 2010’s Total Life Forever was recorded in Gotenburg, Sweden and was produced by Luke Smith of Clor. The band described the sound as “Tropical Progressive” and felt it contained a lot less funk than was planned. They successfully drew attention to the album with the use of long time artistic collaborator Dave Ma’s puzzling and engaging art and video work; these works were revealed in small doses on the band’s website. The album charted #8 in the UK and earned a larger following for the band and critical praise, being nominated for the 2010 Mercury Prize. 2013 release Holy Fire was the best performer to date for the band charting at #2 in the UK and breaking open the band’s presence in America with the single Inhaler. The recording was produced by Alan Moulder and Flood and recorded in London. The album was lauded by fans and critics alike for it’s uninhibited sound and earned them another nomination for the Mercury Prize.
What Went Down is evidence of Foals successful progression from the young twenty somethings to men on the cusp of 30. For fans it has been exciting to see them trod a path from indie tykes to accomplished musicians and currently concert venue fillers. The members of the band wrote the new album in about 6 months while in Oxford and then decamped with Producer James Ford, “the latest indie producer of the moment” to La Fabrique in Saint Remy de Provence, France. Ford’s approach was very laid back, as the band described,”He just nudged things along.” The result was a push into the next manifestation of what the Foals could become without losing what they have already accomplished. What Went Down carries the scintillation splendor of tunes such as Spanish Sahara but is even more kick ass than Inhaler if that is possible. They seemed to master the ability to mix chart friendly indie tendencies with bouts of existential dark brooding, sometimes within the boundaries of the same song. The tracks were laid down quickly in one or two tries. This go round there is less reverb and more punch. Philippakis stated ‘This is the record that most closely mimics the sounds in our heads…all the band members unanimously like all 10 songs.”
There are times when the hype overtakes a release, and there are some high stakes for bands on the development level Foals find themselves on, where the dangers of plateauing and stagnation can be a huge chasm to avoid. Fortunately for Foals they have found a way past the tar pit and move onto another entirely different level with the release. They successfully avoided the trap of tired formulas and the path of least resistance. The title song What Went Down starts off with a bang; charging out of the gate, as Philippakis characterized the song, “Like the moment when an animal gets ready for the kill.” The power of this song is just barely containable. It displays every member of the band firing on all cylinders with distorted keyboards, gritty guitars and Yannis in full beast mode vocally; it is a song running on high octane. The song literally hits you with its raw energy and makes a breaktaking visceral impact. Amazingly it is the first take of the song in the studio and its rawness feeds the savagery of the song. It is punchy and rage filled.
Mountain at my Gates has a riff that was knocking around on Philippakis phone for a while looking for a good home. It is harkening back to late 00’s Foals with driving drums. The lyrics were made up on the spot in the studio, and were whatever was coming out of Yannis mouth. A departure for him as usually he has journals worth of lyrics as his “go to”. The song deals with the idea of being overwhelmed by the world and what is going on, as it never seems to get better and ill will continues to pile up, but that a relationship can help alleviate the panic. “Show me the foot hold from which I can climb, you when I feel low, you show me the signpost for where I can go.” The tune hits it out of the park by every measure.
Birch Tree originated from a sound check in Utrecht where a hung over Smith and Philippakis were noodling around. It is math rock oriented featuring a beloved boxy old drum machine and a sound both hip hoppy and summery, true West Coast California. Yannis at times is almost crooning the lyrics as he discusses how time slips past, “the river runs away when I chase it”, it is both soaring and bittersweet and the most reminiscent for me of Total Life Forever aurally.
Give it Up is a song stripped of all the usual Foal’s signature sounds. The lyrics seem to address a relationship that never clicks. “You caught the bus I took the train all that remains is words in the rain.” It also discusses the desire to have an effortless relationship. Foals lyrics have always been good but they have stepped up the game on this release. “Give it All” is an evocative song about heartbreak.
Albatross is a spectacular “Tierce de Picardie” with it’s major to minor chords. The song has a great percussive intro and afrokraut beat. As a song it dances on the edge of falling apart and doesn’t resolve the way it should but it doesn’t matter because the song is so strong it can handle being off kilter. Albatross would be comfortable on Antidotes but is displaying much more texture and maturity than their debut. It is example A of how far the band has truly come in creating something new with their sound yet remaining recognizable.
Snake Oil is the song I predict will be huge in live shows and was written for that purpose. Philippakis has stated,” it would not exist if not for “Inhaler” which allowed us another weapon in the arsenal.” It is equal parts sparse and krautrock filled while being modulated by Producer Ford. It is filled with buzzsaw guitars, driving outrageous bass parts and Yannis channeling John Lydon’s PIL vocals. It is an anathematic tune that will explode like a sonic grenade on stage.
The song Night Swimmers is noteworthy for its proficient use of space and atmospherics. It utilizes a fantastic afro beat as it evokes the perfect summer evening after a blistering day. It is many ways a departure from anything the band has done previously. It is followed by London Thunder which is filled with poignant loneliness conveyed by the lulling organs. It is hypnotic and yearning as the sounds come at you from all directions. It is like the calm before the storm and of note is the old wonky drum machine adding a special depth to the track.
Lonely Hunter for a while was a song without a lyric. Originally written in the studio in Hackney it was at first very hip-hop in sound and grimy. The lyrics eventual came to Philippakis on New Years Day, with the dawn and a New Year as inspiration. It speaks to dashed hopes and missed chances that are given a new chance with each dawn and each New Year. The swirling guitar and keyboards provide for a soaring chorus.
The final song on the album, Knife in the Ocean almost didn’t happen. The story goes that the band thought the album was completed and were messing about on a jam session. Producer James Ford had stepped out for a sandwich came back and was like what was that? That definitely goes on! The untethered sounds of the song with its jazz vibe and Purdie shuffle as the drum beat are a feast for the ears. Philippakis vocals are a departure from his usual delivery. The song has this effervescent shimmering sound as it unreels over a large expanding soundscape. The track is a grower that latches on and doesn’t let go as it captures the essence of what the band was attempting to accomplish. It is a perfect closer to an album that could be the band’s magnum opus.
Foals have a proud history of musical mastery in their discography and What Went Down is not only a worthy entry into that register but possibly their best work to date. Foals do not settle for anyone or anything. That has made them rightfully one of the most respected bands to have originated in the 00’s. There is always intensity and a sense that each member leaves it all on the disc, never holding back until the best is captured in the studio. Their attempts to deliver what they see as their vision are what captivate the listener. What Went Down is Foals at their most daring and engaging. To my mind it is a masterwork and in the running for one of the best releases of the year.