Foals strike familiar territory with cool, relaxed dance grooves and delicate melodies on their fourth studio album.
Ever since 2010's Total Life Forever, just the group’s second album, British art-rock band Foals have endured feverish accusations of having sold out by a certain fringe element in their fanbase. Their first album, the widely-acclaimed Antidotes, played with musical form in a way the band hasn’t since, so much so that they were initially labelled a math-rock band. It’s not hard to see why some listeners became attached; the album’s erratic, punchy rhythms, dense layers of interlaced guitar riffs and hyperactive drums were just distinctive enough to ensure that any shift toward the center -- indie rock’s mainstream -- would inevitably be met with some hostility.
But back in 2010, those cries of selling out were mostly unfounded. Total Life Forever undoubtedly abandoned the raw, fierce art rock the band was known for in favor of a far more approachable arena indie rock sound boosted with shimmering, palm-muted guitar lines and hummable choruses, but the vitality was still there, the melodies still soared, and the music still moved. Total Life Forever sparked a new kind of Foals, but one that was nearly just as good, if less interesting.
Unfortunately, more and more that dynamism has evaporated from Foals’ music. 2013’s Holy Fire was rightfully met with wide acclaim for taking the euphoric pop of Total Life Forever and quieting it to an atmospheric simmer while also delivering some hints of the punchy rock the band left behind years ago with songs like “Inhaler”, but its sound was flattened by generic dance beats and static guitar sounds. Each new Foals release was beginning to feel like a comment on the last one, just the product of a series of slight adjustments in sound and tone rather than the utterly transformative effort that Total Life Forever turned out to be. Call it fatigue or lack of ideas (or for a conventional, reductive, and easy-to-throw-around phrase, “selling out”) but whatever label you slap on it, it Foals have definitely suffered from something corrosive eating at the nuance in their music.
This context helps to explain why their latest record What Went Down tastes so bitter and bloodless. It opens with the title track which, like Holy Fire’s “Inhaler”, suggests a harder and more propulsive direction than the album eventually takes with relentless distorted guitar licks, pounding drums and wailing high vocals. Following this is a familiar kind of dour pop track, the catchy and flavorful “Mountain At My Gates”, which begins to lead the band down their more typical lanes with plucky warm melodies and relaxed grooves. From then on, Foals only slide further into the same cool, fluid expanses of pop balladry and arena rock bombast that they’ve waded through for half a decade, only with less novelty and more of a generic aimlessness. Perhaps they’ve finally become what those disillusioned Antidotes purists long claimed they were: anemic shadows of their former musical selves.
What do Total Life Forever and Holy Fire have that What Went Down doesn’t? Hooks, for one. Foals’ transformation into a pop band was endurable because they could write solidly infectious songs with arena-sized choruses that crescendoed out of markedly different verses. For their new album, Foals have left most of their formulaic rock songs without any concrete refrains or tangible climaxes. Surely they could write a quality song without a brash, needless hook stapled in, but they hardly make up for it; throughout most of What Went Down, frontman Yannis Philippakis’ vocals are lethargic and impotent, making songs without major melodies, catchy riffs or driving instrumentation -- “Albatross”, “Give It All”, “London Thunder” -- ring absolutely hollow. These songs are gentler versions of Holy Fire’s slow, glum, least memorable songs, but without any substance to grasp onto whatsoever.
What Went Down as a whole shows a Foals that are stagnating within the indie pop box they built themselves into two albums ago, unable to evolve in any substantial way or even capitalize on the infrastructure they already built. Barring a couple solid songs that fit their catalog fairly nicely, What Went Down offers nothing that their previous albums don’t deliver in a much more satisfying and ample way. You can hope it's a misstep, but unfortunately it looks more like yet another anchoring point in Foals slow downward trajectory.