During its first few years of existence, Fol Chen could’ve been a band that was swallowed whole by concept. No matter the merits of glitchy, R&B-influenced singles like “C/U” and “Cable TV,” conversation about the band usually circled around to its anonymous membership or the cryptic mythology built around its first two albums, 2009’s Part I: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made and 2010’s Part II: The New December. It’s refreshing enough that press materials for the group’s latest, The False Alarms, mention newly installed frontwoman Sinosa Loa by name; that its songs don’t serve any sort of overarching narrative is a further positive sign that Fol Chen doesn’t intend to become a synth-pop GWAR anytime soon.
That lack of concept suits the band. The inscrutable apocalyptic storyline of John Shade and The New December imbued the music with a sense of dread, but the band’s scrambled electronics achieve that trick without such extra-musical strain. The False Alarms’ “200 Words” and “This Place Is On TV” don’t require any nonsense about a virus that destroys human language to establish their creepy-crawly mood. And though Loa and her bandmates may have given up on hiding their faces, disguise is still an essential part of the band’s sound. Throughout The False Alarms, Fol Chen masterminds Samuel Bing and Julian Wass treat Loa’s voice like just another piece of sonic Silly Putty, chopping it up, imprinting robotic effects on it, and running it through filters typically reserved for individuals placed under witness protection.
Peeling away the conceptual layers lays bare the perpetual fight between Fol Chen’s brain and the band’s heart (with its occasional ally, the pelvis). Placing Loa at the front of the stage gives The False Alarms a focus the band’s previous albums lacked; its experimental urges and crowd-pleasing instincts have never played so well together as in the one-two punch of “I.O.U.” and “A Tourist Town.” (In sound and subject matter, the latter is something of a prequel to The New December’s big pop moment, “In Ruins”: a melancholy-tinged survey of a mundane landscape that future generations might look at the way we view the Roman Colosseum.) The band even confronts its duality head-on in “Doubles,” a slinky number where blipping-and-beeping verses give way to choruses that are all handclaps and IRL drumming.
But The False Alarms is still a transitional album, and transitional albums are marked by unsure footing and the occasional bum track—both of which characterize the flat industrial tromp of “You Took The Train.” The False Alarms finds Fol Chen stripping off its makeup and taking a good, hard look in the mirror. The lines on its face show its future and its past: The next step is deciding whether to cover them back up or to keep forging ahead with minor flaws in full view.