Foals’ fourth LP What Went Down beckons us deep into the abyss of the manic and often chaotic fury that bursts through each track. The Oxford hailing quintet has created something that is primal and raw at its core, yet in terms of production, it’s polished and refined. Recorded in the South of France at La Fabrique studios in Saint-Remy-de Provence – perhaps drawing inspiration from Vincent Van Gogh’s stunt at a psychiatric ward in that very village – What Went Down takes us from one extreme to the other through it’s violent bursts of aggression and it’s subtle nostalgic moments.
The title track creates quite the impression of what might follow; with hard-hitting guitars and Yannis Philappakis’ anarchic, raspy vocals just missing accuracy. ‘What Went Down’ quickly takes listeners down a path of destruction and desperation, with its spiralling across soundscapes that whirl you around emotions. This is contrasted with funk-heavy moments in tracks like ‘Birch Tree’ that stitches together a tropical groove and laidback bassline. Philappakis taps into his gentler side with softer vocals that lure listeners to “come meet me by the river”. ‘Night Swimmers’ is another example of the continued direction that Foals have found themselves moving in; building on 2013’s Holy Fire with its intricate, fast-paced rhythmic guitars and gently echoing vocals. With dense, distorted, funky bass, the clapping percussion kicks in, the song changing shape almost entirely. This is certainly an album of stark contradictions that will keep listeners guessing.
While there are less of the catchy choruses akin to that of Holy Fires’ ‘My Number’, the albums second single ‘Mountain At My Gates’ is a close contender with its stretched out chorus, anchored together with Foal’s classic noodling guitar work. The lyrical repetition, which is a prominent factor all throughout the album, gives this song among others a familiar nostalgic feel. ‘Albatross’ again uses the same lyrical repetition but in a very different way. The faster-paced keyboard is paired with Jack Bevan’s marching beat – the drumming itself feeling like a call to action – spurring some kind of chaotic movement for what is unclear. The layered and distorted vocals seem to take back seat in this track while the beat swells and intensifies.
‘Snake Oil’ is perhaps one of the stranger and more experimental tracks of the record. Opening with what sounds a bit like a bizarre 80’s synth throwback it quickly transforms as the wiry guitars and scratchy bass kick in and the reverberating vocals create a deep sense of space. Compared to this track, ‘London Thunder’ might sound like it belongs on another album entirely, coming as close to a ballad as a Foals song would allow. It’s a slow-burning, reflective song that is one of the albums lyrically stronger tracks although at times Philappakis’ voice is lost amongst the bloated synth. Like much of his writing this song feels extremely personal as though it’s his moment of clarity: “With my fingers burned I start anew,” he sings.
What Went Down is packing both grunt and groove. The eclectic mix of aggression and hostility with reflection and nostalgia show exactly why Foals are able to produce an album of thrashing rock meets restless funk. The broad musical scope that all five of them encompass gives them an advantage at tackling various styles and genres. Philappakis’ voice goes from crooningly smooth to visceral screams of desperation. At times it feels as though the vocals are competing with the dense layer of instruments resulting in a loss of focus in certain tracks like ‘Albatross’ and ‘London Thunder’. For the most part though, Foals’ fourth record is one that exemplifies their musical diversity in a captivating way.