If you’d seen Foals of 2008 – scrappy, math-rock inclined ‘intellectuals’ – you wouldn’t believe the position they are in right now. 2013’s Holy Fire was a watershed moment, with ‘Inhaler’ and ‘My Number’ breaking into the charts and the album a critical and commercial success. They were headlining minor festivals. There was no-where left to go but up and the pop-orientated move was a good idea. For all I love their weird niches in their origins, they were built to rise up and position themselves as among the headliners in British rock – Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Blur, Kasabian. Whilst Foals might not fit straight into the macho-riffing of some of those groups, it’s in their diversity that they become good. Mixing strong pop singles ‘Mountain At My Gates’ with some more eclectic songs such as ‘Night Swimmers’. However on What Went Down the conversion to rock titans is pretty much complete and that definitely has its pros and cons. At it’s worst, What Went Down just doesn’t sound like Foals, coming off more like the band Yannis Philippakis, vocalist and guitarist once criticised – Arctic Monkeys. When that doesn’t happen, the originality of Foals returns, complete with funky drums, cryptic lyrics and pounding crescendos. It’s infuriatingly tantalising.
‘Mountain At My Gates’ is what happens when Foals write a pop song. Passed off as another ‘My Number’, it contains more instrumental experimentation (funk, reggae steel drums) that the former, plus a fantastic hook on the chorus. For a song about paranoia and the guiding light of a person, it’s positively euphoric, especially at the climax, which has a guitar solo that manages to punch through the clatter. Like a lot of Foals songs, drummer Jack Bevan has to be commended for keeping time and keeping his furious drumming going during the end of ‘Mountain At My Gates’. ‘Birch Tree’, the third song on the album (and the only one that hasn’t been heard prior yet) begins a little bit like a sped up ‘Spanish Sahara’, but then a mixture of synthetic and physical drums pop in, followed by a guitar line that’s nostalgic towards early Foals. However, the chorus is pretty familiar if you know your ‘My Number’ well enough. The chorus is repetitive ‘Come meet me by the river / see how time it flows’, but works well enough. It’s not the greatest song in lyrics ‘my heart’s an old black panther / corrupted financier’ or experimentation for Foals, but it has single quality.
Your dose of Foals instrumental hammering comes in the form of ‘Albatross’. A couple of other songs have crescendos, such as ‘Knife In The Ocean’, but ‘Albatross’ does it best because it has the full package. Philippakis sings ‘You’ve got an albatross around your neck’ with drums that sound like an especially intense cowbell, something I thought I’d never compliment a band on. The madness at the end doesn’t break out, it gradually builds and builds, like the best Foals songs. Speaking of the best Foals songs, ‘Night Swimmers’ comes out of nowhere like ‘Cassius’ or ‘Olympic Airways’ from Antidotes. The lean drums and twitchy guitars are reminders that Foals can still deploy dancey math-rock when they feel like it. Philippakis sings ‘We swim under the moon’ and ‘Under the flaming sky’ with some beautiful imagery, before the song takes a dive into ‘Inhaler’ rock riffs, where they are finally put to good use. As always, Philippakis uses a lot of nature in his lyrics to veil any kind of meaning. However, as his songs get more direct it becomes easier to interpret his songs as paranoid, urban claustrophobia lyrics. Now where have I heard that before?
Then we have ‘Snake Oil’, which is where Foals sound the most like their contemporaries. The chorus riff sounds like something Queens of the Stone Age would have slotted onto their last album and the dance-punk vibe in the verse sounds like Death From Above 1979 of all things. In the hyper-masculine rock environment Foals can’t compete – their heavy tone sounds good but in the production it loses bite and power. This should sound like a White Stripes / early Modest Mouse mash up, but instead it has a shiny ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ AM side to it. That’s what Foals asked for when they got in James Ford on production, who worked on AM two years ago.
Unlike Holy Fire, there is a suspicious lack of quieter, atmospheric songs and that’s a real shame. Only ‘London Thunder’ and ‘Give It All’ (For a little while) appear as quiet songs and neither can match the one-two of ‘Moon’ and ‘Stepson’ from Holy Fire. Seeing as some of the best Foals songs are the quiet ones the lack of anything to break up the pop/rock alternation is a huge miss.
Foals are not going back to experimental math-rock. They’ve gone too far for that, and I think Foals aren’t too unhappy with the success as to release their own Kid A. The Radiohead comparisons that have plagued them since the start are most apparent here and on Holy Fire though. It feels like their OK Computer, though the level of success that is about to greet them is debatable. From Philippakis’ fiery frontmanship and cryptic lyrics begging looking into and the twitchy instrumentation, it’s funny how similar the two albums are, almost twenty years apart. As to how good What Went Down is, it has it’s moments. ‘Lonely Hunter’, ‘What Went Down’, ‘Albatross’ and ‘Mountain At My Gates’ stand up against anything Foals have done before, and now it’s so much more accessible. When Foals show their own originality, they shine brightly as one of British rock’s best bands, but when they sound blatantly like the bands that they should oppose, it’s frustrating. In any case, What Went Down is the key next step for Foals and I’m looking forward to see where they go from here.
Funnel Recommends: What Went Down / Albatross / London Thunder