In a way, Foals’ new album What Went Down has always been in perpetual motion. It’s been nearly seven years since the release of their debut album Antidotes, an album that seemed to create their entire reputation for the next two years – angry, intellectual, and incredibly skilled in the realm of math rock, a genre so rhythmically complex and fronted by none other than Steve Reich, which, in hindsight would send any music theorist reeling. Still, this was the image that Foals presented to the world, looking more like a young-blooded, indie heart attack with their asymmetrical hair and tight tennis shorts, yelping out lyrics and letting the instrumentals speak for themselves. It was a good move, considering the recognition this unique kind of gusto gave to the quintet, but of course, a buzzed out, angst-emblazoned foundation would only prove to be one-sided. Total Life Forever, their sophomore album, wiped away all the self-righteousness only to find a beating heart, one patiently waiting to be dissected and examined. Half the tracks dripped with an almost tangible sense of wonder, while the other half played with the concepts of darkness and vulnerability, a condition that seems to be synonymic with the mere idea of Foals as a band. The struggle between excitement and fear for the void may have been the result of having a multi-layered enamel surrounding singer and frontman Yannis Philippakis’ entire being, as well as a newfound darkness slowly settling into his heart. Just by listening to the album beginning to end was enough proof that the rage – from memories of being an outcast in his childhood, an outsider to his father, and frustrations with his own personality flaws – were slowly building. Three years later, Holy Fire came barreling through and changed the band’s image like nothing else before. It was nearly flawless in everything from its individual track construction to the placement and proportion of those same tracks, and the underlying themes of self-laceration and vulnerable anger made the album one that truly deserved the nomination of the Mercury Prize. The tracks raged and scratched into the skin with dirty fingernails, chugged and puffed with brute force, and most importantly, became the first time that Philippakis could really, really scream into the void. It really wouldn’t make sense that the void would ignore a band as volatile and skillfully impressive as Foals, and something seemed to beckon and echo strongly enough, considering the short amount of buffer time that occurred until What Went Down finally burst through the seams.
Yannis Philippakis has mentioned that usually, the band takes a break before hitting the grindstone again, but this time, it was back to their stinky, cramped Oxford studio almost immediately after touring for Holy Fire. They then transferred to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the very same commune that housed the asylum in which Vincent Van Gogh sought solace after infamously chopping off his ear. That’s the sort of inspiration and history Foals thrive on, and judging by Yannis Philippakis’ need to channel an inner madman, it’s a pretty amazing place to complete any project. It was the fastest they have ever recorded an album, foregoing the perfectionist attitude that seemed to hold them back before. Because of this, one thing to realize when listening to What Went Down for the first time is that it’s structurally and emotionally different from anything else Foals has done. I truly want to say that it’s a culmination of all the thoughts and feelings presented, that it takes the youth of Antidotes, the awakening of Total Life Forever, and the mature rage of Holy Fire, but ultimately, the truth is that it deserves to be presented as the beginning of new ideas, albeit madness-induced ones. The title track “What Went Down” is a good representation of this, considering its rabid, foaming rage in which the lyrics compare men to lions and liars and bury hearts deep into the ground. It snarls and bites in its krautrock inspired instrumentals, and even though they sometimes overpower the vocals, they still succeed in getting the major point across.
The feeling of strength and fervor is succeeded with “Albatross” and “Snake Oil,” the more volatile of the bunch, although a little strained in inspiration and consistency. There’s a Black Keys vibe somewhere in there, in between the raging guitars and Jack Bevan’s vitriol infused drumming, which actually weakens it somewhat, yet doesn’t take away from the intense skill itself. The album, at times, tries to reinvent the concept of a riff, and What Went Down is chock full of them, no matter if they’re clean and bright, or dark and grungy. However, it seems as if the constant display of these riffs take away from everything else the tracks have to offer, and ultimately only serve as a way for Foals to desperately prove their worth. They have proven that they the masters of simplicity, and thus should have stayed with the rough, minimal sounds of Holy Fire while also experimenting with their new sound. Again, the riffs aren’t bad, but they just make you miss what once was. However, the major themes repeated throughout the album strengthen it again, and it helps the initial lack in consistency and inspiration in the first listen. Nature is something that seems to be an inspiration to Philippakis, considering that in most of his compositions he’s floating in the middle of the ocean, the desert, or anything that proves to be vast and terrifying. It definitely works, and I found myself imagining the sun-stroked river in math rock stunner “Birch Tree,” the murky blue lagoon in “Night Swimmers,” and of course, the daunting mountain in the upbeat track “Mountain At My Gates,” the little sister to Holy Fire single “My Number.” However, no three tracks come close to the gorgeous ballads “London Thunder,” “Give It All,” and closer “A Knife In the Ocean.” There’s a new sense of empowerment and rejuvenation found in these tracks, and the more I listen to them, the more ideas present themselves to me. It’s among the best Foals have ever written, and especially with “Give It All,” the passion is clearly still there. The falsetto that opens it is world’s different from Yannis Phillippakis’ signature voice, and everything from the lyrics to the images they create make it an absolute stunner.
In the past, Yannis Philippakis has used music as an emblem of pure honesty – a no-nonsense sort of writing that uses metaphors and images in a way that isn’t meant to be ambiguous, but evidence of the true human condition of vulnerability, passion, and conflagrant anger. With What Went Down, that cerebral sound is traded for one more visceral, and even though it’s clear that Philippakis is still hurting, the music is no longer glorifying those feelings. Rather, it seems to be more evocative of coming to terms to his own condition and trying his best not to savagely rip pieces of himself away anymore, or embrace brutality for brutality’s sake. Even though it’s clear that in What Went Down the inspiration and readability is hazy and distant at times, the heart never fails to show itself. Foals are still that muscular, beating heart found in Holy Fire – an album that truly changed my perception of beauty and honesty for the better – but now it’s one that’s getting closer to finding a warm body in which to call a permanent home, even though the journey is far from being over. In the meantime, they’ll go back to doing what they do best – portraying real, human emotion as it’s meant to be portrayed.
photo by Nabil Elderkin