What did go down, Foals?

After the whirlwind success of third LP, ‘Holy Fire’, the pressure was on to produce something on par with its all-encompassing sound. Recording and writing was split between Provence, France, and the quintet’s humble hometown studio: their much-loved ‘Oxford sweatbox’.

Both locations- and the distance in between- cast long shadows over new record, ‘What Went Down’. The murky, oil-soaked sound of the album encapsulates the mood of deserted islands and cold tube-lines at 3am. It’s not quite as far-reaching as the band said initially, but the pendulum certainly does swing between moods, never quite teetering too left or right.

‘What Went Down’ is a cohesive listen: one that doesn’t look to set charts ablaze, or be fodder for critics. A dark force of sound, that at times, almost feels like you shouldn’t be listening; like you’ve snuck into the neighbour’s pool in the dead of night with your best friend.

Following on from the closing track of ‘Holy Fire’, Moon, there is a precise line of tension running through the album that no masseuse or acupuncturist could squeeze out. It is a dangerous thrill ride set to a nightmarish backdrop.

Lead single What Went Down is about as heavy as the album gets – guitars and keys tumble over each other as frontman Yannis Philippakis scrawls at a vision of a lover lost, and his own masculinity. The eerie keyboard intro is enough to put the most hard-nosed individual on edge.

Mellower tracks are not as treacle-sweet as suggested by the band previously, and uphold the ominous tone. The guitars, which begin almost playfully, snake into a threatening solo in Mountain At My Gates, as elements of vocals and percussion move as seamlessly as the landscape does. Birch Tree‘s intricate string intro is the soundtrack to long drives to nowhere, and glistening poolsides – a tropical house ditty paired with evocative – maybe even a little seedy – imagery.

“My heart’s an old pole dancer/Troubled romancer, you know … My heart’s an old black panther/Corrupted financer, you know … “

If ‘Holy Fire’ is all smoke, mirrors and carnivorous flames, ‘What Went Down’ is muddy puddles, marshlands and umbrellas in the evening. A Knife In The Ocean torrential delivery comes in rolling waves of unrelenting drums, and crippling self-doubt. Lyrically, it’s reflective, referencing ‘fire’ and growing older – but in respect of both wordplay and instrumentation, the song doesn’t quite have the impact of their second album’s juggernaut Spanish Sahara.

Both Albatross and Snake Oil are marathon efforts – both suitable listens if one’s planning on a sprint through the Badlands. Philippakis has frequently cited his love of  South African music growing up, and it’s apparent in both songs percussion-focused intros. Drummer Jack Bevan is to be applauded for managing to make his drum-kit sound like the remnants of a human skeleton.

The nervous energy which forms the body of Night Swimmers is both enchanting and menacing, with Yannis’ chorus calls coming as distant echoes, cries for help. Pacing plays an important part of album highlight Give It All: Edwin Congreave’s lilting synths are slow and precise, growing as does the track: mournful and melancholic.

Philippakis admitted prior to the album’s release that lyrically, he might only have one album left in him. What Went Down‘s lyricism is not at the standard of their previous albums, but the frontman still delivers some mortal blows. On Lonely Hunter, he says that “love is the gun in your hand”. On Give It All, he wants “the shade of a thunder cloud” and “the goodbye said out loud”.

There’s blood in the pool, but where’s the body? What Went Down is an enigmatic, anxious, and often difficult listen, which is no bad thing. It is not as violent, nor as light-hearted, as the band promised, but it remains an arresting and aggressive listen throughout. It is an unimaginable earworm that is set to leave many reeling, in the same way a movie with a cliff-hanger ending does. If ‘Holy Fire’ was for floor-filling, ‘What Went Down’ is for stadium-filling, (and grave diggin’).