The United Kingdom band Foals has a sound that’s hard to pin down. Their debut album, “Antidotes,” has that kind of pop-punk sound we’ve come to expect from U.K. imports—like the Wombats’ “Let’s Dance to Joy Division” on downers. Another one of their albums, “Total Life Forever,” swerves from punk to a more laid back sound as it progresses.
Despite their experimentation in genre, each of their four albums carries that illusive but distinctive Foals sound. Maybe it’s Yannis Philippakis’s vocals or the juxtaposition of gloomy subjects with infectious drum beats. Either way, “What Went Down,” released Aug. 28, 2015, is no exception. This record could only have come from Foals.
Foals have been hovering on the periphery of the American alternative scene for a few years now. A few of their singles (most notably “My Number”) have gotten significant airplay, but they’ve yet to have their breakout Arctic Monkeys moment. Some thought that this album might be the one to launch them into the stratosphere, but it doesn’t quite make a big enough impression to grab high chart space in the United States.
That being said, they’ve done very well in the U.K., actually beating out Arctic Monkeys for a few NME awards in 2013. Their first three albums are all certified Gold in the U.K. and have reached the top three on the U.K. charts (and number one in Australia).
The album is quick to grab your attention as lead singer shouts, “I buried my heart in a hole in the ground” to launch into the title track “What Went Down.” This heavy jam rolls easily into the big single from this album.
“Mountain At My Gate” has all the characteristics of a lead single: fun beat, catchy riffs, a killer bridge. It’s no wonder that this track has gotten a fair bit of airplay since its July release.
Next up is the funky “Birch Tree.” The drums are light and quick instead of the deep rolling thunder on most of the album’s tracks, which make this a nice breather before things get heavy.
The longing lyrics and vocals in “Give It All” glide over subdued synth melodies. The music builds and breaks like waves tracing the push and pull of desire and loss in the lyrics.
“Albatross” carries on the introspective mood with a melancholy exploration of the things that hold us back in life, a la Bastille’s “Weight of Living, Pt. I,” set to a rolling drumbeat that gets deeper as the mood darkens. On the heels of the song, “Snake Oil” is almost sinister with its creeping bass line and high guitar tracing eerie vocals.
“Night Swimmers” and “Lonely Hunter” don’t leave too much of an impression — just more of Foals showcasing their tight drum beats and spacey guitars. Thankfully, “London Thunder” rests between the two. The music grows dynamically but doesn’t break the smoothness of the track, allowing the yearning vocals to increase the emotional tension and hold it the entire length of the song.
The album closes with the sweeping “A Knife In The Ocean,” a solid demonstration of the band’s rhythmical skills and ability to change dynamics.
There’s no doubting that these guys have a unique sound. Their rock roots show up in their complex rhythms and tight drum beats, and something about the smoothness of this album makes it feel like they’re really coming into their own. But perhaps it’s the same smoothness that will hurt them.
To really break into the American charts, they need to make some Arctic-Monkeys-sized shockwaves. Now that they’ve polished their sound as a band and gained a little more name recognition with the success of “Mountain At My Gate,” it’s time to use this as a jumping-off point and take some risks. Until then, they’ll probably be just another U.K. indie band people will play for their friends to sound cool.
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