Music

Foals – What Went Down

Foals have hit their peak on their immense and evocative fourth record, says JULES LEFEVRE.

Somewhere between 2008’s Antidotes and 2010’s Total Life Forever, Foals changed direction in a somewhat dramatic fashion. Antidotes, their debut, was an excellent statement in modern dance-punk, from the brash ‘Cassius’ to the inscrutable ‘The French Open’. The songs were complex, mathematical in their construction, and played by a band with an obviously high level of technical proficiency. Moving into Total Life Forever, they still retained these traits, only now they were deployed in create sprawling rock epics, typified in the highly successful and undeniably glorious ‘Spanish Sahara’. They pulled off this change with aplomb, and when they moved further into that territory with Holy Fire, it was another nail in the coffin for the ilk of Antidotes.

“These songs are rich, at times highly emotive, and constantly simmering”

Holy Fire, led by ‘Inhaler’ and the restless funk of ‘My Number’, felt like a slightly-past-the-mid point between Foals’ past and their destination. It affirmed their new position as a headlining band, thanks to its grandiose explosions of rock that seemed purely intended to pour out of festival speakers. Holy Fire took two years to complete. But What Went Down was written in a three-month creative burst that capitalised on the energy of the final shows of the Holy Fire touring cycle.

The result is dense, and keenly focused; instead of pin balling between ideas Foals seem to have settled on a solid aesthetic. These songs are rich, at times highly emotive, and constantly simmering. It was recorded in France with producer James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Florence + The Machine), whose production lends them even more muscle than usual, giving the tracks the required guts to support Philippakis’ fury and hopelessness. It’s a feeling that seems paramount on What Went Down – that of something ending, of being always uncertain. He’s continually on the verge of leaving, whether he’s saying goodbye to his lover on a train (‘Albatross’), chasing an endless river downstream (‘Birch Tree’), running manically through the dark streets “bloody from a fistfight” (‘Give It All’), or simply giving up: “now that we’re over the future is colder, what is there to do” (‘Knife In The Ocean’).

Surrounding these grim musings is a sound that builds on the best of Holy Fire and Total Life Forever diving headlong into space and cavorting in layered, swirling soundscapes. Percussive polyrhythms and guitar arpeggios interlock, squeezed together until they break apart into a colossal chorus expanse. It’s a formula that Foals frequently exploit here: first, on the single ‘Mountain At My Gates’, with a skittish drum kit threading between the guitars. It’s followed, and bettered, by ‘Birch Tree’, where the liquidy guitar noodling is undercut by the brisk, angular rhythms. For all the doubled down intensity, it’s a rush of relief when they do finally crack, which can often take minutes and minutes of relentless and thundering build (‘Albatross’). They haven’t fully left their punkish leanings behind; here they are represented in the grimy, red-blooded riff of ‘Snake Oil’, and the abrasive thrash-a-thon opener ‘What Went Down’.

‘Give It All’ leans on a ghostly drum thump behind high floating synths as Philippakis hurls tortured screams into the void. While on ‘London Thunder’ his voice is nearly lost amid the ringing guitars and clattering drums. The temptation for Foals to replicate the success of ‘Spanish Sahara’ has always been great, and on ‘London Thunder’ it becomes evident that it’s still a hard one to shake, as it swings perilously close to becoming an upgraded re-creation. This is a fairly mild misstep though, on an album that reconciles the band’s disparate extremes. Foals aren’t the band of Antidotes or Total Life Forever anymore; they’ve become something far greater.

FOALS ON RECORDING IN AUSTRALIA, TAKING SHROOMS AND READING POETRY