Foals ‘What Went Down’ – Review

10 Sep

It’s easy to forget what Foals were like when they first started releasing music – remind yourself by watching the ‘hummer’ video. Spiky, tuneless, more than a little pretentious but bags of fun. For better or worse Foals traded in that youthful vigour and enthusiasm for the guarded intellectualism and brooding seriousness that has come to define their recent work. Yet they remain appealing to a mass audience, in fact their popularity has only increased. They are the art rockers who appeal to lad rockers and lad rockers who appeal to art rockers.

Despite making their name with irritating math-rock, Foals have known their identity for a while now and there isn’t a huge amount to differentiate ‘What Went Down’ from the two albums that proceeded it. Airy vocals mix with interlocking grooves and just a dash of funky, picked guitar lines that can break into corrosive riffs at the drop at a hat. If the formula feels tired then that’s only because Foals have become so good at it. Less atmospheric and pretty than ‘Total Life Forever’ and stodgier than the nimble ‘Holy Fire’, ‘What Went Down’ first and foremost feels like Foals first proper rock record. It’s the first one that front to back would convince in an arena setting. With James Ford on board, most well known for Arctic Monkeys, Florence and Mumford and Sons, you have to think that was a goal.

Typically Foals best songs have been their singles; from the earworm hooks of songs like ‘Casius’, ‘Miami’ and ‘My Number’ to the brash swagger of ‘Inhaler’ and the soothing beauty of ‘Spanish Saharia’, they’ve amassed quite a stunning collection. Early singles from ‘What Went Down’ Could have been an early indication then that things weren’t quite right. ‘mountain at my gates’ and ‘what went down’ aren’t bad but they fall short of the usual standard. The rising and falling tension of ‘Inhaler’ is replaced a straightforward guitar assault that leaves little space for a memorable melody. The crushing riffs and screaming vocals fail to convey emotion, and the oblique, metaphorical lyrics don’t help the situation. The insightful intimacy of ‘My Number’ is replaced by metaphorical, natural imagery so predictable it verges on cliched. But a weak introduction to the record actually opens up quite an interest development in Foals story. This is the first of their albums that isn’t top heavy and reliant on singles. That allows deep cuts like ‘Night Swimmer’ and ‘Lonely Hunter’ to grab attention.

So it’s an album less about the big moments and more about little ones. The opening guitar lick of ‘Birch Tree’ is delicate but memorable. It recalls ‘Snow’ by Red Hot Chili Peppers, a strange comparison until you notice the funky tight baseline and rhymes (‘dancer’ with ‘cold romancer’ with subway chancer’) and realise that Foals always had more in common with the Chili peppers than a lot of people would care to admit. They are a band who like to incorporate unusual time signatures, exotic rhythms and funky grooves but aren’t afraid to rock out or be silly when the moment calls for it. ‘Shake off’ and the title track are easily their heaviest moments to date, and they’re enjoyable if somewhat clunky and uninspired.

For the most part It really does feel like Foals are firing on all cylinders here. It’s hard to think of what else they could do or achieve without a radical reinvention. But as easy as they are, and always have been, to like, they remain difficult to love. Their lyrics are slightly too oblique and distant, the vocals lack warmth and strength, and the arrangements are stiflingly overthought. Foals attention to detail and immaculate playing is impressive but I don’t hear sparks of spontaneity or unguarded emotion. They are constantly caught up in the finer details and end up losing sight of the things that make bands beloved – passion, intensity, conviction and the sense that something necessary is being said and all is being risked. ‘What Went Down’ is enjoyable, well designed, eclectic and interesting – it’s another good album. But it further convinces me that ‘good’ is all this band are capable of.

7/10

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