Hit play on Foals newly released fourth album and a minute into the pummelling title-track opener you’ll find yourself asking if this is the same band that gave us the infectiously catchy and shiny dance-funk gem “My Number” only two years ago on third album Holy Fire. It couldn’t be could it? It all sounds so bruisingly hard. There’s a menace to the sound that wasn’t there before.
Where’s the “unashamed funk”, as frontman Yannis Philippakis puts it, that was so irresistible on their last two albums? It’s almost as if, while putting together their new behemoth of an album, Foals dug themselves a deep hole, buried themselves in it, got a little sweaty, went a little mad, and seemingly made a pact not to re-emerge unless they bring along some ‘moments’. True moments, which make you feel tiny. In a really good way. Only huge, quite epic moments would suffice.
These ‘moments’ come in the form of huge build-ups, of creating walls of sound, of setting lush, thick moods, and of unleashing monstrous riffs. Very monstrous ones. Things that Foals are now no strangers to anymore. Anyone who’s thrown their last two albums on will attest to that. These are all things that have been a long time in the making, things the band started to dabble in with second album Total Life Forever and delved deeper into on third album Holy Fire, in which the ferocious riff-monster came up for air in the shape of “Inhaler”: a frenzied beast, finally broken free of its shackles and relishing the freedom to maraud and pillage the land. Holy Fire acted as the precursor to everything Foals would do on What Went Down, and, unsurprisingly and unquestionably, they’re doing it all much, much better this time around.
Philippakis has explained on numerous occasions prior to the release of the album that the band were looking to push themselves to the extremes, to make their wilder moments more wild and their tender moments more tender, and to pursue those ends of that spectrum mercilessly. Philippakis wanted to “tap into [his] inner madman and feel like [he] was channelling some sort of fevered creature”, and what better way to do that than record in the same town where Van Gogh was thrown into a psychiatric hospital after cutting off his ear. Tasty surroundings when wanting to get in touch with the most volatile version of yourself.
What Went Down is bookended by the two modes that Foals operate so efficiently well in. The title-track is a punch to the chest, an assault, a savage thing in which Philippakis howls “when I see man, I see a lion”, his human and animal sides converging, blinded by madness. The epic “A Knife In The Ocean“, where Philippakis laments for “the things [he] once believed in”, closes out the album in the grandest way, its seven minutes sprawl and build like a tsunami wave until it comes crashing down, crushed by its own weight, a surprisingly fragile thing underneath it all.
The back-to-back appearances of “Mountain At My Gates” and “Birch Tree” introduce the dancey thread – Foals faithful ol’ friend – that’s as ever the most prevalent element that runs through much of the album. They’re slices of slinky shimmering dance-funk, and Philippakis isn’t a crazed animal here anymore, but a “troubled romancer” instead. Yes, he can have a bite to his bark, but he’s ever the delicate one too.
“Night Swimmers” takes the dance sound to new heights, with its gunshot snares, meaty bassline and interweaving guitar-parts, while “Albatross” spreads its wings and takes flight off the back of a skittering, jittery pulse. Then there’s “Snake Oil“. This album’s “Inhaler”. A riff-monster that would eat “Inhaler” for breakfast no problem. It all makes for an immersive listen.
What Went Down isn’t a ground-breaker. There’s nothing here smashing down the barriers of music and blazing trails into as-yet explored territory. This is the same Foals that leave every stage they play on in rubble, and they’ve managed to capture that famous energy and encase it for us to have at our fingertips. It’s the same Foals that have always poured their blood, guts and sweat into their songs and performances. But, it’s all bigger. What Foals do, they do very well, and now it’s… bigger. That’s something that we should all be very excited about.
Foals’ What Went Down is out now on Warner Music UK, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Oli Kuscher