Album review: Foals’ What Wend Down shows they are not quite thoroughbreds yet
What Went Down
“Show me a signpost of where I should go,” sings Yannis Philippakis on the loud-quiet-loud alt-by-numbers of Mountain at My Gates.
It’s a pertinent request from the lead singer of a band whose members appear to have ridden themselves nicely – and, perhaps, quite deliberately – into a creative cul- de-sac.
Foals aren’t lost, exactly. They’ve just run out of gas. Or should that be hay to chew on.
The UK quintet have done a fine job of climbing the decaying tree of indie-guitar credibility. Their two most-recent albums – 2010’s Total Life Forever and 2013’s Holy Fire – earned Mercury Music Prize nominations, the hallmark of commercial respectability.
This one, their fourth, has every chance of doing so, too – it represents a safe solidification of the quintet’s dance-y, clanging, indie-rock, which probably felt terribly new and exciting when they were students jamming on Talking Heads grooves in their student dorms. But now celebrating 10 years as a band, shimmering, reverb-laden guitars and clever drumming won’t cut it alone.
This, perhaps, explains the harder change of direction that marks the album’s most eyebrow-raising moments – What Went Down contains some of Foals’ heaviest work to date.
The title-track opener and Snake Oil both benefit from huge, fuzzy guitar riffs that, in combination with the band’s focused, grunge-lite attack, expunge a heady whiff of guilty, fist-pumping adrenalin. It’s easy to hear the influence of another round of festival headline slots in this new-found polished bombast.
Yet it’s still the smarter, uppity, off-groove moments that best expose the band’s innate rhythmic flair; there are shudders of Alt-J to the brainy maths-rock of Birch Tree. The highlight is Night Swimmers, a restless vamp driven by a tasty guitar ostinato and smart, syncopated drumming, which slowly give way to increasingly aggressive counter-textures in the challenging outro.
But these moments of smug success are outweighed by the heavy load of mediocrity that pervades.
There are unwelcome shades of U2 – the stadium aspirations waved like wanton lighters in the air – to London Thunder, a slow piano dirge that drags before it’s even begun.
The band clearly take their own advice on Give It All, but I’d prefer they exerted themselves less on this trained piece of yearning, mid-tempo melodrama. The only thing Foals give more to is the seven-minute closer, A Knife in the Ocean, which ends with a studio symphony of duelling, feedback guitar whines. But rather than catharsis, it feels like calculation – with emotional expenditure the desired balance of this equation.
Lyrically, it’s a poor show of teen poetry, too, as evidenced by Philippakis’s pained penchant for awkwardly holding a single syllable for five or six notes, James Dean Bradfield-style (Exhibit A: Albatross). Just write some more (and better) words next time.
The case isn’t terminal. There’s no need to put Foals down just yet – but a heavy dose of steroids might be necessary if these ponies are ever to grow into thoroughbreds.