Foals – What Went Down (Album Review)

foals_what_went_down_album_cover

Foals have never released a great album, ‘Antidotes’, ‘Total Life Forever’ and ‘Holy Fire’ were three decent albums that all had tendencies to sometimes dive into a promised land of creative genius for Foals. On the scrappy ‘Antidotes’ (probably their most well-rounded offering) it was the fantastic Math-Rock of songs like ‘Two Steps Twice’ and ‘Balloons’; on ‘Total Life Forever’ and ‘Holy Fire’ they started a transformative journey of trying to make more emotionally powerful songs that also drew influences from other places like Funk and Hard Rock. ‘Spanish Sahara’ and ‘Blue Blood’ captured that yearning to become more than the limitations that their debut put on them in that they very delicate, whereas ‘Inhaler’ and ‘Providence’ showed them at their most invigorating yet when trying to capture the animalistic spirit of their live shows.

Foals have accumulated a large fanbase in the UK, based off of a handful of songs from each albums and these aforementioned energetic live shows. The band’s frontman Yannis Philanskehjwbvfsh sports a howlish growl at the concerts and the guitars often sound punchier than they do on record. To the delight of so many fans, when Foals announced their new album, ‘What Went Down’ and released the first single – the album’s title track – they were greeted with perhaps Foals’ heaviest songs to date. The track featured distorted guitars piled on top of each other and Yannis ditched his sometimes questionable falsetto vocals to scream as loud as he could – they ditched much of their Funk for straight-up Hard Rock. According to the band they deemed this as their record that would capture the spirit of their live shows and Yannis had taken influence from Pixies’ frontman Frank Black for his vocals. The vocals played a key part in the second single released by the band, ‘Mountain At My Gates’, which was a lot more groove driven and Yannis’ howl made the song thrilling.

The problem is that ‘What Went Down’ doesn’t deliver on its promise to be Foals’ magnum opus despite the fact that it takes some great steps forward for them stylistically. On parts of this album the production values have improved greatly with Yannis not leaning so heavily on reverb and the mixing isn’t so terrible that at times it makes good songs sound sour (see ‘Milk and Black Spiders’ on ‘Holy Fire’). The way that the guitars are placed so fantastically over the top of the compositions on the songs ‘Night Swimmers’ and ‘Snake Oil’ does somewhat capture Foals’ ear for a great guitar tone and matches it with their fantastic vocal melodies. Not only that but there’s a heavy use of synth on this album, often lingering in the background rather than taking the forefront but they do bulk up the songs. But these two songs are the only ones that really come close to capturing the heavy brilliance from their first singles for the album.

Much like on their previous albums the singles are very misleading, and although WWD isn’t so all over the place in style like their previous material with the variety being narrowed slightly, it’s not as enthralling as it often was. Since the release of ‘Spanish Sahara’ in 2010 to such brilliant reception from critics – and rightfully so – Foals have tried multiple times to capture the same emotional quality of it and there are a myriad of songs on here that try to update that formula of their balladry. On the track ‘Give It All’ Yannis packs in clever and compelling lyrics detailing the feeling of wanting everything from someone but at the same time being too scared to accept it, and like so many Foals songs it builds to this giant crescendo where Yannis cleverly uses his new vocal style to sound extremely vulnerable.

This formula doesn’t work so well on other spots like the closer ‘A Knife In The Ocean’ which sounds like a hazy Coldplay song, spanning for nearly seven minutes without really going anywhere in particular in terms of song structure with Yannis (whose voice is covered in effects once again at this point) carrying a very repetitive vocal melody throughout with the composition simply getting louder in order to build to a crescendo. Other tracks that take that style of continually building on here don’t work so well either like the song ‘Albatross’ which seems to exist purely to build and build with a rolling drumbeat without breaking out like previous songs of theirs would on their last album. Whereas ‘London Thunder’ a song that doesn’t try to build too much feels like it’s completely stagnant. It sounds as if the heavy sound that this album has been penned as gets completely ditched about halfway through the album to support their slower ballads.

The sessions for ‘What Went Down’ were reportedly extremely smooth considering this is a band that have been playing together for the best part of a decade. They said they didn’t feel like they were stagnating stylistically and there is material on this album that supports this. The problem is that when a band gets too comfortable they can have a tendency to repeat a formula, which does happen here a bit in terms of song structure basing it upon what has worked for them well in the past. The lyrics on this album are one thing that has retained their passion and spark as is the impassioned delivery from Yannis.

‘What Went Down’ is another addition to a discography that continually offers baby steps in progression amongst a lot of material that falters somewhat. This album sees Foals take some big leaps forward on some of these songs delivering some of their best material yet, but it’s surrounded by a bigger shroud than normal of material that doesn’t live up to the standards that they set themselves from the singles on this very album. Although this album is disappointing for a large part of it, WWD does actually succeed in giving more hope that Foals will one day release their masterpiece, even if it’s based on the strength of a mere few songs. One wonders where they will go from here considering they’ve stuck with a similar sound for three albums now, there’s an overwhelming feeling that they need to break out from it.

6.5/10

Best Tracks: What Went Down, Mountain At My Gates, Night Swimmers, Snake Oil, Birch Tree

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