29 Aug 2015

Foals / What Went Down (album review)

Foals are a band who are on the brink of glory. Debut album Antidotes sprung them up a few steps on the ladder, Total Life Forever took them further although in hindsight it was the sound of a band in transition, then Holy Fire catapulted them into the big time. The humungous Inhaler topped NME’s song of the year chart and My Number wasn’t too far behind it. Not to mention the unquestionably beautiful Spanish Sahara. Yannis and his band of Oxford hippies were headlining at Alexandra Palace, sitting atop the bill at European festivals and they probably got played on Match of the Day. And then there was silence as Foals disappeared away from the fans, away from the music and away from each other. For a band as intense, loud and rock ‘n' roll as Foals, a little time off is probably very healthy. So naturally when they returned it was with a triumphant, ballsy fanfare: What Went Down.

“I BURIED MY HEART IN A HOLE IN THE GROUND/WITH THE LIGHTS AND THE ROSES AND THE COWARDS DOWNTOWN”. The title track begins with a shouted declaration, three heavy chords and three cymbals smashing. What follows for the remainder of the song is a masterpiece in both songwriting and production. The song rises and falls without ever being predictable or cliche, Yannis’ voice darts between a growl and a yelp and it all comes together in the end to a thrilling finale. Not a bad way to announce your musical return to the world and not a bad way to open an album either. As the poppier My Number follows the massive Inhaler on Holy Fire, song 2 from What Went Down is a dancier, lighter song full of trademark Foals twitchy riffs and heavy bass drums. At it’s heart Mountain At My Gates is a pop song full of melody, catchy hooks and whistleable riffs. Whilst it could have easily been relegated to purely being an album track or b-side, by the end of the song it’s clear that it is so, so much more. What elevates this song to recieve airplay and surely be a regular feature of Foals’ live shows is how fantastically all the instruments and melodies add up to become far greater than any of them could individually. As with the whole of the album, Mountain At My Gates sounds so full and rich. Of course Foals know all about quiet/loud dynamics (Two Steps, Twice) and encorperate them throughout the album but when they want to be loud and they want to sound huge, they fully pull it off. Credit does have to go to every technical person working in the studio on this album, it is sonically perfect. The producer (James Ford) does his job perfectly, he ensures that it’s impossible to imagine the songs sounding any different to how he’s produced them on this record. That’s how impressive it is.

Birch Tree and Give It All are the 3rd and 4th songs on the album and between them they conclude what is by far and away the best 20 minutes that What Went Down has to offer. From this point onwards things begin to feel all too familar. Math-rock throwbacks to Antidotes come thick and fast in Albatross, Snake Oil and Night Swimmers but the riffs that once sounded so inticing and fresh now sound tired and underwhelming after hearing what Foals were capable of in the first chapter of the album. Whilst the middle of this album is certainly not unpleasant to listen to, it certainly runs low on ideas. Thankfully things do pick up, but surprisingly it’s not a heavy number that pulls things back on track. The beautiful, melanchonic London Thunder eventually demands the listener to begin engaging with the album again. Lead by a keyboard and a very impressive vocal performance, comparisons to Spanish Sahara are understandable if not lazy. The following Lonely Hunter is not a standout track but certainly is an advancement on the mid-album bores of Night Swimmers etc. Interestingly on this track the drums sound more electronic and garage-y whilst the falsetto vocals take a backseat, overpowered by the rest of the band’s sound. Although granted that’s not the most flattering description of a song, it does work well and it serves as a decent transition song away from the show-stopping London Thunder. The concluding track A Knife In The Ocean is a ginorumous song full of layered synths, a fantastic drum performance and a straining, ambitious vocal take from Yannis. It serves as a grand closer to the album and clocking at nearly 7 minutes, the song sweetly takes it’s time in reaching it’s climatic ending.

On What Went Down when Foals get it right, they absolutely nail it. Whether it’s goosebumps in London Thunder or clenched fists in the title track, there are certainly some genuinely fantastic songs on this album. It’s masterfully and carefully produced, sounding excellent through both tinny earphones or expensive hi-fi, Yannis’ vocals throughout are the best they have ever been and as ever drummer Jack Bevan puts in a very convincing shift. Whilst there are no objectively bad tracks on this album, there are sadly a few which only deserve a minor amount of attention in comparison to the album’s dizzy highs. Clocking in at nearly 50 minutes, the 10 songs perhaps attempt to do too much and with an average of length of 5 minutes the weaker tracks could benefit from a little streamlining and shortening. What Went Down and A Knife In The Ocean are both excellent examples of Foals’ expertise in creating longer constantly shifting soundscapes, almost every song on the album attempts to recreate that to a degree but sadly it does occasionally fall short. The five or so standout tracks are so wonderfully crafted and so full of emotion that they will no doubt be lapped up at Foals gigs around the world, whilst the rest will be treasured only by a dedicated few. What Went Down  is yet another step in the right direction for Foals, but it doesn’t quite fulfill the potential of it’s highlights.