Foals – What Went Down (Album Review)

Oxfordshire quintet Foals spent the majority of last record Holy Fire touring relentlessly, so much so that it earned them a headline slot at Bestival 2014. In a recent interview, frontman Yannis Philippakis said that this show ended up being the catalyst for something great. This ‘something great’ subsequently climaxed in a selection of intense recording sessions with James Ford in France, new album What Went Down becoming the final end product. The album will finally be released this coming Friday, yet you can read our track-by-track preview below.

Comeback track What Went Down is the ideal album opener to any Foals record, with Yannis’ vocals sounding rawer than they’ve ever been (i.e. Inhaler x10). “I buried my heart in a hole in the ground” rings the opening line, the vocals surrounded by cataclysmic instrumental crescendos, fuzzy basslines and colliding percussion. The chorus is absolutely intense, to the point where you can almost hear Philippakis’ vocal chords tear apart at its close. A lightly pulsating (yet nearly invisible) synth bass bounces along throughout the verses, giving the song a bit more depth at the right moments. “When I see you mad I see a lion” screams Yannis during the chorus, with each part of the song heavier than what came before it. As album openers go, What Went Down is rather mental.

What Went Down is immediately followed up by lead single Mountain At my Gates, which is more Foals-by-numbers. A jangly chord progression and kick drum combo accompany Yannis during the first verse, before his vocals pick up in intensity during the second verse. Jimmy Smith’s occasional guitar licks shine here, with bassist Walter Gervers also giving the track an added sense of rhythmic presence. Just like any classic Foals track, it builds up as each verse passes, with more instruments and layers entering the frame along the way. Mountain At my Gates builds up to such an extent that it eventually needs its top resealed due to fear of explosion. Yannis sounds like he could burst into tears at any minute during the closing section, a heart wrenching prospect giving the emotional heaviness of this track.

On Birch Tree, drummer Jack Bevan outshines the rest of his bandmates with a sharp combination of two-step drum beats and powerful accompaniment to Smith and Philippaki’s guitar licks. “Come meet me by the river” sings Yannis during the chorus, one which is rather more subdued than what came before it. Edwin Congreave’s eerie synth lines are more audible here, adding a sense of depth which the rest of What Went Down also benefits heavily from. Birch Tree is definitely a calmer track, with less emphasis placed on all-out crazy outros; rather, the focus here is on intricacy and delicacy. This focus on instrumental precision is what ultimately makes Birch Tree an album highlight, particularly when the song careers towards a hypnotic ending which sees all instruments come together.

Give It All’s extended, brooding intro encompasses a wavy synth line which accompanies Yannis’ voice the whole way through. A ticking clock sound enters the frame not too soon after, counting down to a crescendo sound which makes way for the second verse and subsequent percussion. It definitely takes a while for the song to breathe some consistent life, yet eventually it becomes clear that Give It All is meant to be appreciated for the slow burning anthem that it is. The closing section makes way for wailed vocals from Yannis, his vocals sounding more intense and urgent this time round.

Album highpoint Albatross prides itself on the most intricate guitar work that What Went Down has to offer. The intro licks are carefully constructed and meticulously combined with one another in a way which accompanies Yannis’ vocals effortlessly (almost as if they’re not there, when they very much dominate). It’s this guitar-based contrast which helps Albatross stand out so much, and it only gets better once Bevan’s percussion fully enters the frame. The mid-section is synth heavy and danceable, with it eventually breaking down and flowing into a hypnotic bridge. The cymbal-centric drum beats return swiftly, helping the song pulsate and bubble up into a monstrous outro which yet again lets Philippakis’ vocals run free. It’s not as intense as What Went Down or Mountain At my Gates, but it definitely comes close.

This raunchy, Queens of the Stone Age-esque banger is the closest that Foals come to repeating the majesty of 2013’s Inhaler. A gritty, night riding riff takes the helm here alongside Yannis’ vocals, which have been fed through a vocoder. Once the main riff enters the frame, you can hear the floor crumbling open and making way for a huge circle pit. It’s only the beginning of
proceedings though, as the rest of the track pulsates in an even darker fashion whilst destroying everything in its path. Snake Oil has been massively hyped up by everyone and anyone in the build-up to What Went Down, although it does at parts sound rather underwhelming on the production front. The track itself is wondrous (especially the almost-screamed mid-section), yet the way the guitar has been produced makes it sound loose and space-y, almost vaporising the intimate urgency of sister track Inhaler. A fuzz-heavy closing section brings the track to a chaotic ending, although it does sound like it could’ve been even heavier.

Night Swimmers’
opening guitar lick and danceable drum beat instantly makes for an upbeat banger, with the pounding kick drum and groove-laden bassline only adding to this. It’s not exactly My Number 2.0, but it’s the closest that Yannis and co. come to making an indie disco banger on What Went Down. The chorus is anthemic, with Yannis wailing “get up again” over a mix of four-to-the-floor percussion and trickling synths. “We swim under the moon, in a cool blue lagoon” he continues during the second verse, with the track still showing little to no sign of slowing down or speeding up whatsoever. Night Swimmers travels very comfortably towards its final destination, the journey being accompanied by lightly distorted guitars and handclap beats halfway through. An extremely dance-worthy mid-section, which is interspersed in and amongst airy verses, is what holds the track together and makes it another album highlight. If this song doesn’t end up being released as a single then someone somewhere has made a bad decision.

London Thunder’s opening piano line is accompanied by a gust of wind, which is presumably travelling through the dark skies of North London. Here, we picture Philippakis walking down an empty high street as the intro to London Thunder accompanies his demure vocal tone. “Come back to London thunder, the sound of sirens in my room” he sings, perhaps in a reference to the infamous London Riots of 2011. The song builds up calmly over its course, introducing electronic drums and a double-tracked synth which accompanies the now-quieter piano line. Although it doesn’t quite explode into some sort of noise cacophony, it does twinkle in the London night quite like a Foals song should. And that’s completely okay, because it’s something which we’ve come to expect from Yannis and co.

What Went Down’s penultimate track, Lonely Hunter, is slightly more upbeat than London Thunder, but it still carries a heavy weight on its shoulders which Yannis and co. can’t quite shake off. The chorus is bold and anthemic, with Philippakis singing of guns and hunting. “It’s a new year, just in time for me to say I’ll be there” he claims during the second verse, his vocal tone just as emotive and semi-urgent as the rest of the album has come to demonstrate. There’s no chaotic explosion towards the end; rather, the song dies down slightly and then kicks right back into the same chorus which appeared earlier on in the track. It eventually comes to a sudden ending, making way for arpeggio-based synths. This brings the album towards its final curtain call, A Knife in the Ocean.

A Knife in the Ocean is everything you could ever ask for from a Foals album closer – long build-ups, subtle progressions and a cataclysmic ending. The first part of the song is very much restrained, almost like a beast trying to an escape from a cage, with the accompanying chorus somewhat letting loose and making for more anthemic moments. It’s a very hypnotic moment to witness, something which is in part down to effects-laden guitars and slowed down drum beats. The ending sees everything come together once more, with Yannis yet again sounding as urgent, imminent and abrasive as ever before. At almost seven minutes long, it’s the longest track on the record, and it utilizes all seven minutes effortlessly. What started off as a low-key album closer eventually morphed into a monster of epic proportions, and definitely one Foals should be proud of.

Speaking of pride, What Went Down is a record which not just Foals can be proud of themselves for, but one which UK popular music can also breathe a sigh of relief for. British music was on the verge of falling into a Sam Smith-tainted trap door; however, Yannis and co. have come in at just the right time to save the day, along with the likes of Muse and Enter Shikari. What Went Down is one of the best records to be released this year, and it’s sure to catapult Foals further into the upper echelons of festival bills. Glastonbury 2016 headliners, anyone?


What Went Down comes out on Friday. Listen to Mountain At My Gates below.