Oxford rock band Foals have mastered the art of alternative rock. Their discography commenced in 2007 with the album Antidote; hugely influenced by previous work and inspirations in math rock, the debut collection danced around with captivating creativity and artistic vibrancy for an influential indie rock album. Their 2009 follow up Total Life Forever explored futuristic qualities, leaning into more prominent dance rock.
Then came 2013’s Holy Fire:
Mercury Prize nomination, a number of NME awards including Best Song, Best Live Act, and Best Album of 2013, indie rock fans fell in love with their shift to dance-rock/alternative art-rock style. Lead single “Inhaler” blew away audiences with its grandiose sound and fluid crescendo into an explosive, dominating chorus.
Now the alternative rock band lead by Yannis Philippakis are back with their fourth studio album What Went Down, and have recaptured the raw, blistering demeanour of their 2013 hit record, allowed it time to ferment, mature and then unleashed it into a new collection.
Right out of the gates, the title track draws the listener in with the immeasurable force of a black hole, then soon forces it back out with the gusto of a wind tunnel. Philippakis’ moody, dramatic vocals propel the heaviness of the guitars, crashing drums, and driving bass line into a gut-wrenching performance. The chanting of “You’re the apple of my eye, of my eye….When I see a man I see a lion….” is chilling to say the least, and the song’s raw density stains the soul, leaving a sensation of exhaustion and pent-up tension.
Panting for breath, “Mountain at the Gates” cools down the track list momentarily, but when dealing with the raw energy that is What Went Down, it is near impossible to contain it as the song concludes on a chaotic crescendo of noise.
An encompassing feature of the record (like their past work) is Foals’ ability to fill all the cracks in a song with swelling synths, reverberating bass, or the likes. Although slower in tempo and on the lower side of intensity, the dance-rock hook of “Birch Tree”, and the deep tom percussion of “Give Me It All” have the band spreading their music to the far corners of the soundscape.
As mentioned before, the spirit of the album is a struggle to restrain; like a ball of energy seeping through the firm grasp of the band, What Went Down’s energy seems to escape from the artist’s control, and instead becomes an independent thing. “Albatross” and “Snake Oil” are both powerful, mesmerizing tracks, but the “blistering” effect seems to be the choice of the “energy thing”. Foals regroup, sending the album in an electronic-infused direction with “Night Swimmers”, the damp, electro-pop track “London Thunder”, and the laser-synth hook on “Lonely Hunter”, but maintain their stunning, emotive finesse. Bringing the album full circle, “A Knife in the Ocean” fills in as much space as possible, and repurposes the original source of energy into a passionate, cinematic overflow of emotion and intensity.
Each record from Foal captures a specific style and ambience through their music; Antidote was articulate math-rock, Total Life Forever was more dance-rock, and Holy Fire with power-hungry art-rock. What Went Down continues the tradition and finds its footing as cinematic alternative rock, exploring the ups and downs of music’s sonic potential. We can only imagine what will come next, but for now enjoying the moment through What Went Down is an excellent place to be.