FOALS’ FIRST album Antidotes was a bit of an “also ran” when it was released in 2008. It set up Foals as a presence on the music scene but it did little to define the band apart from the bands that were doing the same thing. It wasn’t until 2010 when they released Total Life Forever that Foals presented a much more comfortable sound, as if the band had gone away and thought about where they wanted to take the band to set it aside from the general mish mash. Because of their pushing the boundaries of what they wanted their sound to be the payoff was a stronger identity and a more complete album. This has carried through a third album, Holy Fire (2013), to this year’s release What Went Down.
This album has been called Foals’ heaviest and loudest album yet and while this may be true it doesn’t mean that they’ve started aping some of the heavier bands. Foals has a strong identity at this point and knows now that their strength lies in music that builds slowly then reaches a crescendo stemming from the song’s opening. This may seem like an obvious technique that many bands use, and they do, but not many bands that create this type of music use this technique as proficiently as Foals do. Many are content to blow your head off with massive sound and lively music that makes for a great live show but can be a bit grating when listening on your own. This album has many songs that we’ve come to expect from them, “Birch Tree” and “Give It All” resting centrally in the album as songs with the building crescendo style, but a lot of the songs have an edge to them that you often find on many bands’ first record. The sound that this album presents is, at once, both gritty and lo-fi as if recorded in some up-and-coming bands’ garage but also spacious in a way that only a top quality recording studio can achieve. What we have here is an album that contains a sound we have heard many times before but in a way that feels fresh.
However this album plays around with the listener as only a fourth album can. Fans of Foals will hear the dissonant chords opening the first song “What Went Down” and expect a slow build. Instead we are surprised by a sudden rush of the band intruding upon the dissonance and it keeps the tempo going from there. This album keeps the listener on the back foot throughout. In what could be a dangerous move by keeping the listener uncomfortable we, instead, have an experience that remains fresh with each song. What we have is an album that is grittier than Total Life Forever, more spacious than Antidotes and tighter than Holy Fire and the experience feels much more complete as a result.
It’s very tempting for bands to keep looking inward the further they get in their careers until there’s nothing left of them but self referential messiness that alienates newer and older fans alike. What Foals have done here is throw off the introspection and explode from the studio with a bigger and brasher album. But what can you expect from an album with the title “What Went Down”? The whole album feels as if the songs are telling the story of a fight that has happened recently. We, as listeners, are taken through punchy songs that evoke a confrontation of some sort and downtempo songs reminiscent of Total Life Forever that speaks of quieter moments of reflection in the story.
If one criticism can be levelled against this album it’s that it does start to slow down near the end. Either as a result of becoming acclimated to the sound of this new album or even because it harkens back to their previous efforts in Total Life Forever, the last third of the album feels a little too comfortable. This wouldn’t be a problem if the first two thirds of the album had been a similar sort of thing but with the last third the listener is often left waiting for a surprise that doesn’t appear in the songs. However, with the idea of the album being about a retelling of a fight, the last third could simply be an extended reflection from the teller, one that builds into a final crescendo in the last song. The fact that this reflection lasts for almost three songs, though, does slow the album down somewhat from the tempo that had been set in the first two thirds of the album.
On multiple re-listens the listener will find that the beauty in this album is how it can balance the bigger sounding songs with the downtempo music and still maintain the cohesiveness of the album as a whole, despite the slowing down near the end. What we have is an album that is as good listened to in one sitting with some very good earworms that can be listened to as standalone. Particularly noteworthy tracks are “Snake Oil” with its swaggering riffs, “Albatross” which has a great sonic range and “A Knife in the Ocean” which soars majestically as a fantastic finisher to a great album. This is a great and surprising album to come out at the end of summer this year, with the mix of up-tempo and downtempo songs we have an album that brilliantly evokes the changing seasons. It feels as if the album is squeezing out the last few drops of summer just before we head into winter and primes us for the new season with some reflective music. This is definitely a good album that’s worth listening to again and again.