Foals has been my favorite rock band since I discovered 2013’s Holy Fire. Their fourth full-length outing, What Went Down, further cements that position.
Foals is a rock band through and through, embracing fringe styles like post, prog, and math rock alongside more straightforward indie and punk jams. Their debut found them bursting into the scene with a lot of noise and a lot of attitude. The next two albums found them tightening the reigns, honing their craft, and creating their identity as a band. In What Went Down, Foals is again un-tethered, making a record with the energy of Antidotes and the musical prowess of Holy Fire. This freedom manifests differently from track to track, sometimes exploding into blistering powerhouses (“Snake Oil”), other times nearly bursting into danceable moments (“Mountain At My Gates), and still other times leaving musical tension unbroken for the whole track (“London Thunder”). The album’s gem is its closer “A Knife in the Ocean” – a 7-minute-short brooding epic that sums up the overall feeling I get from the album both musically and lyrically.
Throughout the previous 9 tracks there is a rise and fall of optimism. The album clearly centers on overcoming adversity (or at least trying). Some moments are more victorious, while others are vulnerable and still-broken. As the album drones to a close, we’re left with two thoughts: “The fire it comes, but I’ll be just fine” and “All that’s left is the trace of a memory.” I like to view What Went Down as one big event. Our lives get shaken up, and we’re deeply changed; but we can know that when fire comes, we can emerge unscathed and perhaps stronger than we were before.
However, there are some harsher moments and images within the album (“Birch Tree” and “Snake Oil” being foremost). The band also isn’t always the best example in their social media or music videos (the latter of which I won’t even link to). Foals’ outlook can be a bit grim, but there is hope running beneath the surface, and the immersive music helps to engage with the overall thoughtful and intellectual lyrics. What Went Down pushes Foals in new directions, creating soundscapes that are both bigger and smaller than previous works while embracing the identity and skill they’ve developed over the past ten years.