It is a well-known paradox in the modern music business that it is almost impossible to be both successful and cool. The two are not quite mutually exclusive, but you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking they might as well be given the trend in the British indie rock scene since the turn of the millennium. Very few bands have managed to emerge from the crowded indie rock landscape which developed in the mid-naughties to have stable, financially successful careers, play arenas and headline world tours, and all the while preserve the edge and excitement that made them appealing in the first place.
With their fourth and most mature album yet, What Went Down, Foals prove that there’s no reason why this paradigm needs to exist, and the proof is very much in the music. After the success which followed 2010’s Total Life Forever and 2013’s Holy Fire, they became one of the biggest names in the contemporary rock scene. But as ever, what was to follow remained uncertain. To produce a fourth album of such force and confidence is nothing to dismiss. What Went Down displays a band that is aware of its strengths and yet still able to surprise, to push boundaries, and make a wave in an industry that often times seems interested in ‘what’s new’ for the sake of it.
The eponymous opening track “What Went Down” is nothing short of a stroke of genius. Rather than start off with an instrumental, ambient track like Foals albums of the past, the song is pure bellowed, chord-heavy rock. “Don’t step to me kid, you’ll never be found/ While you were sleeping, I took over your town.” Foals have taken control of the narrative now. They’re in control.
The rest of the album is a fine balance between cemented maturity and Foals’ trademark sound. Songs like “Mountain At My Gates”, “Night Swimmers” and “London Thunder” are so clearly Foals tracks, with the jangling bass lines and Yannis Philippakis cutting up the syllables of the last word of every imagery-laden line. Elsewhere, the tracks are more like the opening number (“Albatross”, “Snake Oil”, “Lonely Hunter”), the guitars driving forward rather than dancing. Its a statement of strength. Foals have crafted a sound of their own in a crowded landscape and have taken it to the biggest venues around the world. They’ve now produced a fourth album that firmly pits them alongside bands like Arctic Monkeys as Britain’s most important rock bands. The refrain of “When I come to walk the line/ The fire may come, but we’ll be just fine” that repeats throughout the closing track couldn’t be more appropriate. Where others have faltered, Foals have stood tall, found commercial success, perfected a sound, and returned with greater force and self-assurance than ever. Just pray they don’t find out you were one of the ones that questioned whether it was possible.