An intense odyssey or incoherent mess? We run through What Went Down
Will Butler

12:06 20th August 2015

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'What Went Down'
As the curtains are drawn on the new Foals album, cymbals crash and after a few bars, we’re racing with an immeasurable intensity. Guitars palm-mute on the defensive and then unload. When the song hits it’s stride, Yannis’ voice pushes further than it’s ever been pushed showcasing a sharper more untethered Foals. 

This title track has an unpredictable danger to it like a lit fuse but still retains the sentimental lyrics we’ve grown to adore in previous Foals releases. “You’re the apple of my eye”, yells Yannis in full beast mode, something we’ve predicted was under surface this whole time but have never heard for ourselves.

'Mountain at My Gates'
Fans of late noughties Foals who may have felt alienated by the title track will feel sweet relief as familiar barre chords ring in trebled glory over technical drum patterns.

Rhythm has always been an essential ingredient for the Foals cocktails but only as much as infectious choruses, which ‘Mountain At My Gates' has in surplus. Heart-wrenching melodies replace the ferocity of the previous track, as vivid imagery Yannis plants in our minds.

'Birch Tree'
Math rock fans rejoice! Intricate and delicate guitar lines make a return with greater pushing power on top of, what sound like, vintage drum machines frequently heard on golden age hip-hop records, only with the additioned of heightened granduer and intergalactic synths.
“My heart’s an opal dancer / troubled romancer.” It’s lines akin to this that make Yannis such a memorable lyricist and will have him held to the same esteem as the greats in years to come. 

'Give It All' 
This is What Went Down’s slow burner, à la ‘Spanish Sahara’ or ‘Late Night’. Foals have upped their stadium potential for this record but also reeled in their inertia to harness the intimate lows they’ve never reached before. Teary synths glimmer and softly soundtrack the swell of emotion that follows the loose narrative Yannis spins of his diminishing love.

Palm-muted guitars at the top of Foals tracks tend to indicate an incoming surge just around the corner. 'Albatross' is the ultimate tease because, for all it’s driving motility and cinematic piano lines, it never delivers the cathartic EMP blast the searing tension it builds would suggest.

Instead, the track follows a process of heating and cooling with a growing potency balancing on a knife’s edge as Yannis’ vocal is lost to the instrumental commotion feeling like the whole structure could fall apart at any moment.

'Snake Oil' 
As obtuse drum machines clatter, the flickering chip-tune percussion is as perplexing and it is intriguing. Yannis groans and yelps inexplicably over a sly, crawling bassline as the gauntlet is thrown down for Foals pushing further into the abstract world; the remarkable thing is, they sound so comfortable there. Punkier dissonance and, dare we say, noise-rock riffage at the back end of the track makes for a definite album highlight.

'Night Swimmers' 
Playful wiry guitar lines intertwine with an urgency Foals haven’t evoked as potently since ‘Red Socks Pugie’ back on their debut. The most noticable transformation, among the thousands since then, is Foals’ more proficient use of space and atmosphere.

Yannis’ vocal expands out from the centre of the mix filling every crack with a reverbed omnipresence. The dexterous guitar work is then broken by this robust bassline and clapped percussion and as the tempo lifts, 'Night Swimmers' take the form of a legitimate jittering dance track, who would have guessed?

‘London Thunder’
Distant organ chords sound muzzled, maybe indicative of the lethargy and misdirection this track bleeds as Yannis paints pictures of poignant loneliness.

“And now the tables turn” the frontman breathes as harmonies gently unfurl and growing instrumentation seeps out of the peripheries and into focus. Sparse percussion and droplets of guitar work make for a lulling ambience to give platform for What Went Down’s most captivating and reflective lyrics.

'Lonely Hunter'
“Will I see you? / I got lost in foreign lands / Tried to get back / I hoped you’d understand”, 'Lonely Hunter' feels as middling as the record stretches to stay since the imbalance is the propulsion behind the philosophy of the record.

That said, this track still has huge single potential. The lyrical density reads like poetry which provides enough depth for the sticklers that may grow weary of What Went Down’s overdose of soaring choruses at this point.

'A Knife In The Ocean' 
Having already previewed it during Foals’ Radio 1 live session, we knew this 7 minute behemoth could potentially be the Oxford band’s magnum opus. Delayed guitar notes swing above deliberate drum work and lush chord strums and as the chorus hits, screeching notes slide to create this feelin gof sharp intakes of breath telling of an incoming trepidation.

‘A Knife In The Ocean’ has an ebb and flow like the collapse and cresting of waves. “Whoa, what come of the things we once believed? / Whoa, all lost to the depths of a hungry sea”. The feeling of loss and stark existentialism is rife throughout the whole record, a fact it’s only revealed to us right at the finale, when all the loose ends are tied up and resolve is given: “The fire it comes but we’ll be just fine”.

But that’s not to say Foals believe entirely in such utopian conclusions. The instrumental rages on with grand walls of effects and throaty yells accumulating this post-rock sounding odyssey that, despite the chaos, feels earnest and compassionate.

“I wanted to tap into my inner madman and feel like I was channeling some sort of fevered creature”, said Yannis about the new record, but the sheer depth and emotional gravitas is emblematic of a far more complex reconstruction of the band.

Foals are rightfully one of the most successful and respected UK bands on the circuit because they don’t settle for anything or anyone. Brazen in their experimentation, this record sees the band play with the powers of both noise and harmony to extremes they’ve never trifled with before.

An intense experience from start to finish, Foals drag us to the tempest and pull us back into safety just before the cliff crumbles. What Went Down is the most daring and exciting record since their debut - an uncompromising triumph. 

- Foals release What Went Down on 28 August

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Photo: Press/Nabil Elderkin