Foals have never been just another British indie rock band. They avoided being grouped in with the cookie-cutter indie bands that came out of the UK in the late 2000s while never feeling the need to try anything too out of the ordinary for attention. Their debut album Antidotes skirted math rock with its jarring melodies and syncopated rhythms, before follow-up Total Life Forever married this style with more straightforward rock and even some sweeping ballads. Then 2013 gave us Holy Fire, which moved even further from math rock and into the territory of both atmospheric and pop-oriented songs. As Foals grew exponentially in popularity and seemed to move in a different direction with each album, there was no real telling what their fourth album would bring.
The first thing anyone heard from What Went Down was the title track in mid-June.
Holy Shit. This is easily the most aggressive, pumping-up, shit’s going down song that Foals have ever made. From its pounding drums, building guitars, and singer Yannis Philippakis belting the lines “give up my money, give up my name, take it away” at the final chorus, this song is basically one long adrenaline rush. Foals have made high-intensity songs before including “Inhaler” and “Providence” from Holy Fire, but nothing that’s come close to this. Could What Went Down be Foals moving towards a much heavier sound? Well, one month after the title track was released, we got second single “Mountain At My Gates.”
Huh, well that’s a lot milder. And as it turns out, “Mountain At My Gates” is more indicative of what the majority of What Went Down is like – anthemic sounding but with a contemplative quality. In this way, the title track remains a bit of an anomaly on the album, since only the American-influenced “Snake Oil” comes close to anything else that could be considered heavy. The remainder of the album is neither intense nor graceful, making What Went Down Foals’ most moderate-tempo and straightforward album to date.
This is not to say that the album lacks any sort of ingenuity that sets it apart as a Foals project. Songs like “Birch Tree” and “Night Swimmers” have Foals’ trademark high-pitched staccato guitar notes throughout, the latter also containing an instrumental break reminiscent of “After Glow” or “Providence” (albeit much more condensed and mellower). “Albatross” carries an ominous tone slightly reminiscent of Radiohead and builds in a chaotic crescendo until fading out with a few sparse notes.
It is an interesting exercise to contrast Philippakis’ vocals and lyrics on What Went Down with those from debut Antidotes. Early Foals was marked by cryptic lyrics sung in a distinctively thick English accent, and encouraged listeners to pay more attention to the tone of the song over what was actually being said. Since this time, Philippakis’ voice has dropped into a low croon with the occasional reverb effect added, and their lyrics have become much more introspective and confessional. What Went Down is heavily metaphor-focused, with lines such as “come meet me by the river, see how time it flows” and “what came of all the things we once believed?/oh, all lost to the depths of a hungry sea” making it a fairly poetic album. Songs like “Give It All” and “London Thunder,” What Went Down’s quietest, feature the most sincere lyrics, adding to the straightforward nature of the album.
Taken one track at a time, What Went Down does not offend any sensibilities as there are no glaring missteps. A radio station could play any of its ten tracks without having listeners reach for the dial. Yet experienced in one sitting, the innocuous nature of What Went Down lends itself to being tuned out. Two months before the album’s release, Philippakis said “the extremes are further apart than anything we’ve done before,” which is true when contrasting the ferocity of the title track with the soft pining of “Give It All.” Yet it is also true that past the title track are nine songs that range from mildly gentle to mildly forceful, never going too far in either direction. Foals may have long abandoned their desire to create songs described as technical and abstract, but their move towards music that can be called beautiful and epic frequently ends up in the territory of just being tepid.