Such is the height of secrecy surrounding Foals’ fourth album, probably in an attempt to head off Captain Jack Sparrow, Long John Silver and other piratey scoundrels, it’s been distributed for appraisal under the name of something completely different – Perky Birds. And with 2013’s Holy Fire becoming the band’s second Mercury Prize nominated collection, there are huge expectations that a bounty of treasure is about to be revealed which must be kept away from those thar pirates; hotly anticipated is the understatement of the year.
Taking just two months in France to record, frontman Yannis Philippakis has stated that the new record has been the easiest and quickest to lay down; heading directly into the studio following the Holy Fire tour, Philippakis claims the impetus from the live shows carries over to the new tracks. “We were playing like a ruthless, elegant machine,” he says.
First single and title track What Went Down takes a krautrock, motorik beat along with a constant, slightly wavering keyboard drone to produce something far removed from what you would pick out as a typical Foals track. Vocals are all very monotone, but belie a thrilling mix of high-charged excitement in a kind of Underworld Born Slippy way: it’s unexpectedly monstrous. Soon to be second single Mountain At My Gates is similarly excellent; this time a more traditional math-rock feel adorns the song with repetitive, high-pitched guitar notes wrestling for centre stage with more guitar solos and a spine tingling bridge.
Math-rock is certainly the most celebrated genre ‘reference’ given to Foals since their 2008 Antidotes debut, and it re-appears more than just the once. Birch Tree features the familiar guitar sounds alongside a ticking beat for a compelling effort that boasts a rousing finale once added synth layers appear. The brilliant Night Swimmers then employs an enthusiastic drum pattern, with occasional fuzzy guitar riffs, to contrast the nerdy math-rock noodlings to great effect.
Another magnificent cut Lonely Hunter aims for the stratosphere with an anthemic chorus sitting alongside chiming synths and persistent drums: “Why must I wait in line for what is mine,” complain lyrics that seem to have developed in line with everything else about the band. This development echoes that of Arctic Monkeys upon releasing AM in 2013, their maturing being almost tangible. And with James Ford on production duties, perhaps that common denominator is key.
The slower, sparse London Thunder is sublime; gently atmospheric, it somehow sounds new yet as familiar as an old friend. An explosive conclusion would have created a classic. Elsewhere, Give It All takes in sparser beginnings of just vocals in conjunction with simple keyboard chords to produce a shimmery, glistening gem before drums finally arrive as vocals become passionately irresistible.
Two more massive tracks seal the majesty of the new collection: firstly, Albatross soars like its name, a clippety-clopping beat sounding something like a tap-dancing horse introduces the track and after a dreamy lull, it picks up for a gallop to the finish line in euphoric fashion. Album closer A Knife In The Ocean is nothing short of epic over its six and a half minute existence, ironically reaching giddy heights whilst lyrics tell of analogies to the ocean depths as it portrays the fleeting nature of life.
With only the intriguingly named Snake Oil providing somewhat of an average, doomy, Kasabian type entry in an otherwise exemplary set of songs, Foals have produced yet another outstanding must-have album. “It feels like we can do anything,” Philippakis says and on this evidence there’s little to argue with. Indeed it’s hard to see What Went Down as anything other than a third Mercury Prize nomination-in-waiting – these Birds are Perky indeed.