With 2013’s ‘Holy Fire’, there was a feeling that Foals had begun their imperial phase. Going from intense math rock upstarts to a Bestival-headlining leviathan over the course of one album, it was as though the world had quietly had a summit and decided that, actually, these Oxford boys had passed some test and could now graduate to the next level. The sizes of venues they played grew, their album narrowly missed out on a Number One and was later voted NME readers’ album of the year with lead single ‘My Number’ voted best track. Somehow, this eclectic bunch with their angry young man of a singer had become one of the British public’s favourite bands.
Because Foals are a determined lot and because frontman Yannis Philippakis is a passionate, bullish and quite possibly slightly unhinged Greek fireball, you know that, going into fourth album ‘What Went Down’, they’ll be damned if they’re going to fuck this one up. In the past, Philippakis has spoken of the creative process leaving him a husk and of “setting my shell on fire” in the name of art. This time around, he told NME that he wanted to “tap into [his] inner madman and feel like [he] was channeling some sort of fevered creature”. In Camp Foals, there is little room for compromise and on the eve of the record that could cement them as one of the UK’s biggest bands, they’re going in all guns blazing.
Here’s how it sounds…
‘What Went Down’
You’ll know this one. Roaring out of the starting blocks like a feral beast let loose, ‘What Went Down’ is the gnarliest, biggest, boldest thing Foals have ever done. Big riffs, snarling vocals and lyrics about being a “sycophantic animal” explode into a climax that will blow venues’ walls apart. Foals mean business.
‘Mountain At My Gate’
Taking elements of many of Foals’ best moments to date – tropical grooves akin to ‘My Number’, a sparkling build up reminiscent of ‘Spanish Sahara’ – and framing them in a bigger and bolder context (notice a theme here?), ‘Mountain At My Gate’ is Foals’ pop side, dialled up and given some added clout. Familiar yet still pushing their remit out further, it’s an accomplished and exciting distillation of everything that makes the quintet brilliant.
Stripping back to trademark intricate guitars and a deft beat, ‘Birch Tree’ is a different but no less intriguing portal into Yannis’ lyrical purging than the visceral release of what’s already come. “The city I was born in I left a long time ago/And we lost touch, grew apart my friend“, he begins before reaching the crux. “My heart’s an old black panther/Corrupted financer y’know/It’s a troubled romancer/A question with no answer“. It’s restrained but danceable and a lesson in how to do a lot with seemingly only a little.
‘Give It All’
Earlier this year, Yannis described ‘Give It All’ as “one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever written” and you can see why. His voice begins in a fragile, high falsetto – unrecognisable from the harsh barks of old – before sinking into a resonant, warm rhythm. Evocative and honest, its lyrics are passionate and nuanced, detailing the emotional salvation of finding the person that finally makes sense: “Give me the time but not an age/Give me the look, but not the rage/Give me the feel for where I go/You give me it all“.
As a steady motif of Afrobeat percussion kicks things off, layers of guitars and a heavy drum beat building around it, it’s clear from the off that this one is gonna be big. Swerving and turning unexpected corners, ‘Albatross’ undulates between moments of restraint and moments that unleash. There’s a twilit quality to its sparkling keyboard lines and a dusky sensuality, however, that’s different from anything Foals have offered up before. It’s a track with a tangible pulse that chooses nuance over force.
You couldn’t really title a song ‘Snake Oil’ and then make it anything other than a growling, sleazy monster, could you? Opening with Yannis moaning suggestively, it’s all gritty, low-slung basslines, purring vocals and big Sabbath riffs in the chorus. If sultry Queens Of The Stone Age man Josh Homme was tasked with writing a Foals track, you’d imagine he’d come up with this raunchy number.
Until 2m30, ‘Night Swimmers’ plays out like a ‘classic’ Foals track: lots of intricate guitar interplay, a propulsive beat, lyrics detailing a fairly primal connection with nature. Then the switch flicks: big growling riffs hammer things home and the beginnings of a synth-heavy, club-ready breakdown peek over the parapet. At festivals, this will be a laser-filled monster.
Like the cousin to ‘Holy Fire’’s ‘Late Night’, ‘London Thunder’ balances mournful pianos with dusky guitar licks to create the kind of nocturnal atmosphere that transports you to that singularly solitary place that only occurs in the earliest hours of the morning, when all is dark and the whole world is still. “There is no space, there is no time/Where do you draw the line?” questions Yannis. It’s a moment of respite, to sit back, assess and collect your thoughts in a record that’s bursting with them.
“Why must I wait in line for what is mine?” begins our frustrated protagonist before falsetto harmonies kick in over a big soaring, partly pop chorus. There are little ticks to be found, however – an unexpected piano chord progression, a surprise ending – that add intriguing peaks of interest to one of the record’s more straightforward moments.
‘A Knife In The Ocean’
And so the end is near… Foals have good form with interesting album closers (‘Holy Fire”s ‘Moon’ was a sparse yet weighty curveball; ‘Total Life Forever’’s ‘What Remains’ was grand and beautiful), and ‘A Knife In The Ocean’ doesn’t drop the ball for ‘What Went Down’. Based around an unusual, swinging drumbeat and a vocal different from any of Yannis’ previous offerings, it’s purposefully off kilter before dropping into a chorus bathed in huge atmospheric washes of sound. The end is like a slow apocalypse, crashes of guitar build like waves steadily encroaching on the shore as Yannis howls its climax, giving the last piece of himself over.