Foals - what went down

Samantha Potter

The tranquil and picturesque village of Saint Rémy-de-Provence in the South of France seems an unlikely location for the likes of Foals to record an album. But there is something in the air, literally, that seems to provide inspiration – albeit with a slightly perturbing effect. Supposedly, Le Mistral wind of Provence is infamous, known for its fierceness and often damaging impacts, both physically and psychologically speaking. In the village where Van Gogh spent time in a psychiatric ward after cutting off his ear and where he famously painted the Starry Night, a converted 19th-century farmstead was the prime location for the creation of Foals’ fourth album, What Went Down. 

Frontman Yannis Philippakis stated in an interview that they intended to ‘capture the madness’ of Van Gogh in order to up the intensity of the new album. This desire, coinciding with the effect of Le Mistral winds, did indeed work to produce a stirring effect on Foals’ music, most evident in the album’s title-track with its emotional and turbulent lyrics. The dark imagery of What Went Down depicts the divide that separates man from the beast within, and is portrayed through grinding, repetitive lyrics: ‘when I see a man I see a liar/when I see a man I see a lion”. As the introductory single, the loud and chaotic nature of it is perhaps over-intense: a niche, but certainly powerful track for a first impression. 

Formed in 2005, all-but-one of the five-piece are Oxford University dropouts, who eschewed academia for ‘running round the country in a Royal Mail van playing to no one’. Since the release of their first album, Antidotes, in 2008, Foals have grown massively in popularity, and their sound has evolved to become increasingly amplified with each album. Compared to their early material - energetic math-rock including Cassius and Balloons - their sound is barely recognisable, but with popular singles such as My Number it has now become well within Foals’ capability to fill headline slots at festivals. After Florence & The Machine replaced the Foo Fighters as headliners at Glastonbury, Foals were asked to fill the slot on the Pyramid Stage but declined the offer: What Went Down hadn’t yet been released, new songs had not been rehearsed enough. Turning down such an offer leaves me wondering if Foals were quietly confident that their new work would lift them to headline standard in the coming years anyway. Being an unfortunate case of bad-timing, the headlining opportunity is likely to come up again.  

After the aggressiveness of the opening track, the second single Mountain at My Gates is a bit like the calm...after the storm. From this track onwards, the album is more melodic, like a progression of the previous mercury prize-nominated album Holy Fire.  Knife in the Ocean, the album finale, is by far the most impressive track on the record – it’s gripping and demonstrates the strongest musicality Foals are capable of. Despite a couple of similar-sounding tracks in the album, the variety it needs is provided by two stripped-back singles, which are at the other end of the scale of extremity: Give It All and London Thunder. These heartfelt tracks demonstrate the polarity of sounds that Foals are so brilliant in achieving, especially with the immense success of Spanish Sahara on their second album.

The album as a whole is perhaps not for the casual listener. At times it feels overly-aimed at pleasing live crowds, but fans’ admiration of their gigs are such a big reason for Foals’ popularity. And from experience, you can never stand still at a Foals gig: expect crowdsurfing from Philippakis (and the crowd), moshpits, and well-timed crescendos that invite crowd participation. Ultimately though, What Went Down will be best received among those who are fans of Foals’ heavier, gloomier and atmospheric turn; but for fans of their earlier, upbeat pop-rock, Foals have definitely lost some of their original attraction.