Foals – ‘What Went Down’

Oxford's finest flit between gnarly rock and frustrating slickness on an often-brilliant fourth album

Like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining had it rocked, Foals are a band of gruesome beauty. For their 2013 third album ‘Holy Fire’ they boiled clean and battered cow bones for percussion on an album both relentlessly funky and, by Yannis Philippakis’ own admission, “stinky” of groove. That record felt like having a rave in a huge vat of marshmallow; gorgeous and enveloping, but with moments like ‘My Number’ and ‘Inhaler’ to cling on to.

For ‘What Went Down’, written in their Oxford “stinkbox”, they have found their fulcrum. Riffs. Massive, fucking heavy cavern rock riffs, the size of cathedrals and the weight of God’s balls. They slammed into your eardrums like wrecking balls the first time you heard the compulsive title-track, aghast that these desert rock goliaths could be the same band that sounded like frivolous disco pixies just two years ago. Opening their fourth album, Yannis roaring “When I see a man I see a lion!” over its Stooges-meets-Queens fuzz throttle, it sounds like a defining statement, an arrival. They’ve mastered math rock, destroyed disco and flattened funk, now they measure hard rock in their hands like a medicine ball, and find it a comfortable weight.

Though they only sporadically reach those heavy heights, there’s a crunch at the core through much of ‘What Went Down’. Even as they delve back into amorphous, addictive math pop on ode to dark times ‘Mountain At My Gates’ and crack out their trademark top-of-the-fretboard noodles that always made you think their guitars were weaved out of silver twine by Icelandic eunuchs, the track builds to a dial-bursting finale that sounds like the first ever Dalek post-rock band. ‘Night Swimmers’ underpins classic Foals afro-gaze with some pulsing buzz rock, ‘Albatross’ rattles by on a rusty rumble that makes the song sound like Coldplay being boiled alive in a cannibal village’s cauldron and ‘Snake Oil’ is scuzzed-up, sleazy neo-blues akin to The Black Keys having an original idea. At times you might think that Foals have been dipping a finger into Slaves’ musical powder bag.

Heavy rock is something of a risk in 2015, though, particularly compared to the intricate dancefloor inventions that Foals helped forge. So you can’t blame them for hedging their bets; when the record isn’t rocking out, it’s playing it frustratingly safe. ‘Birch Tree’ takes a detour into the sort of varnished, synthetic future funk that wouldn’t be out of place on a (gulp) Years & Years record, while ‘Give It All’ starts down a misty road of Florence-style tribal-tronics. As gorgeous as ‘London Thunder’ is – a classic slice of on-the-road dislocation set to mid-air atmospherics and ‘Pyramid Song’ synth organ throbs – it could easily have been called ‘London Grammar’. On a similar thematic note, the real stand-out of the album’s slicker side is ‘Lonely Hunter’, a disco funk noir in which Yannis uses an adrift-on-the-ocean metaphor for the rock star life, forever struggling to flounder his way home to a partner, terrified that “love has put a gun in your hand”. Lost, Yannis tends to grasp for familiar straws.

The frontman never escapes his watery prison. ‘A Knife In The Ocean’, the swelling album climax built on a tapestry of artful guitar mist in the grand tradition of ‘Spanish Sahara’, finds him watching “the things we once believed… lost to the depths of a hungry sea” as a megalithic whale-song riff sails by overhead. A song of desolation, yet it proves – once again – Foals’ potential to be the most inspired and inspirational band of their generation. All they need do now is let go of the safety rail and plunge.

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