Fol Chen At The Hammer Museum, Thursday July 18th 2013
Around 8 pm, a helicopter was making rounds and rounds in the sky above the Hammer Museum, the way it happens too often in Los Angeles. It continued doing this during the first part of Fol Chen’s concert on Thursday night, and guitarist/frontman Samuel Bing was desperately throwing glances at the sky between songs. Fortunately, it wasn’t too loud so that the crowd could enjoy Fol Chen’s delicate and adventurous synth pop, then the disturbing noise stopped mid set.
I knew a little bit about Fol Chen and I had seen them before, but I was surprised to see only 3 people on stage at the Hammer, as I remembered them being a large band during their residency at the Echo three years ago. Not only there were a lot of people on stage at the time, but a lot of them were alternating on vocals, or harmonizing, or exchanging their roles on stage. One week, they had even invited people they had found on Craiglist to be their new lead singer, and we saw a number of strangers sing their songs all night long. Nothing like this on Wednesday night, only Sinosa Loa’s voice over synth, Samuel Bing’s guitar and Garrett Henritz’s drumming, … quite a change and an almost reductive manner to move on with a band’s career.
This year, Fol Chen has released a third album, ‘The False Alarms’, after their debut album ‘Part 1: John Shade Your Fortune’s Made’ and its follow-up ‘Part II: The New December’, and since I didn’t see a setlist on stage, I want to guess they played many songs from this last release, although I recognized a few old ones. Fol Chen’s music is most of the time difficult to describe, their meandering and intriguing tunes take twisted detours, are filled with electronic dry and uneven beats, sparse keynotes, certain exotic snippets from countries I have never been able to clearly identify, and dance rhythms, not the kinds that would make you take the dancefloor with legs over head, just light subtle ones, made of disrupting pulses. Despite a few catchy songs with repetitive hooks like the light-industrial-beats-meets-dream-pop of ‘In Ruins’ or the bollywood flavor and plain weirdness of ‘Cable TV’, or the false tango tempo of ‘The Holograms’, or the heavy-poppy melodrama of ‘Winter, That’s All’, they have always sounded too experimental for mainstream.
But overall, there was an obvious sexiness over all these tracks, and Loa’s voice and presence on stage was certainly reinforcing this idea. On Wednesday night, they were performing in front of a row a bamboos, and her shiny gold dress as well as their overall look was showing that the band cares as much about visual as sonic aesthetics. I thought their performance grew bigger and bigger, starting with delicate and languishing songs and some vague dream synth-pop tunes that weren’t necessarily captivating my total attention, sounding like some forgettable Lykke Li’s remixes, then going into more interesting sonic ideas with ‘Boys in the Woods’, or the synth sidereal swirls interrupted by propulsive percussions of ‘You Took the Train’, and especially the submarine-space-odyssey-installing-high-drama of ‘200 Words’. Sinosa Loa had a stage presence which was hesitating between a close-to-boredom languishment and an exotic sensuality but she woke up with a large smile when she took some drum sticks to back up Henritz’s effective drumming on one song. The tunes were becoming bigger in the melodramatic sense of the term, and, despite the fact that Fol Chen doesn’t perform in the most complete anonymity anymore as they used to (they used to come up on stage with masks covering their faces), at the end of their set, I wasn’t sure I had totally unveiled their mysterious sound.