FRED ABONG – Fear Pageant

Although he’ll be best known to most people as an ex-member of Throwing Muses and Belly, singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Fred Abong has carved out a solo career exploring some interesting lo-fi sounds. On the ‘Homeless’ and ‘Pulsing’ EPs, he introduced audiences to his minimal approach to arrangement, and with just voice and electric guitar, the best material contrasted angular noises and introspective lyrics on tunes that sometimes felt like audio sketches. Although strong on record, these tunes really sprung to life in the live setting, but every artist needs to move forward, and by the time of 2022’s ‘Yellowthroat’, his recordings had expanded to include mellotron, piano extra vocals and felt altogether warmer without losing focus of his lo-fi signature sound.

A year on, 2023’s ‘Fear Pageant’ takes another musical shift when Abong expands his arrangements a little further, delving even deeper into a traditional indie sound on a couple of the album’s tracks. One of the finest Abong numbers to date, ‘Bats’ applies a moody vocal to a waltzing time signature, with the music immediately latching onto something brilliantly downbeat. Acoustic guitar strums are augmented by echoing piano notes; the deeper elements of the piano melody are lifted further by plunking percussive sounds, and a dour, droning keyboard supplies a lovely near-gothic tinge. A couple of the instrumental passages sound like a Robert Smith demo for The Cure’s ‘Disintegration’ LP, whilst other parts of the arrangement hark back to a fascination with late 90s sadcore. Holding it all together, Fred applies a typically gentle – almost lax – vocal, where his maudlin tone has a strange warmth of its own, and a familiarity that connects this with his earlier, much more lo-fi material. Even more minimalist, ‘Half Wit’ shares chiming, repetitious guitar chords and strange, floaty jazz-inflected keys, venturing further into a world of mellow reflection. It possibly could’ve sustained three minutes of such wavering, but a drum machine and accordion-like sound soon add extra depth, and Fred sounds rather comfortable sharing his thoughts about “wasting another year” and being “better off hiding”. It mightn’t be his intention, but at the time of release, it’s easy to imagine that such things have been inspired by the pandemic lockdowns of the still recent past. For those who are less interested in moods and lyrics – why are you listening to a Fred Abong album in the first place? – there’s a little more musical interest once Fred plugs in and layers the slow groove with a wash of shoegaze guitars. Proof that although his time with Throwing Muses may have been long ago, some things stick. In terms of indie fare, this provides one of the album’s more accessible and immediate entry points, even though it isn’t necessary the best or most interesting number.

One of Fred’s finest tunes to date, the slow balladry of ‘Shadows’ mixes his acoustic side with a clear keyboard sound and shimmering sounds that draw heavily from dreampop. This is by no means an easy love letter to his 4AD past, though; there’s a genuine unease in the melody that ensures this is far darker. The acoustic elements are underscored by truly haunting melodies, and Fred applies a slightly flat and haunting vocal to suit. Beneath the layers, you’ll still hear the heart of something that’s rather close to the ‘Homeless’ material, but with a few stabbed keys and a slightly bigger finish, it’s good to hear Fred’s familiar sound reaching its full potential. For fans of his finger picked guitar, this album shares a little of that, too, and throughout ‘Hungry Ghost’ a lovely folk-tinged melody dances beneath even more lo-fi drones and, in an unexpected twist, even drives a soundtrack-like middle eight where acoustic notes lean into a spacious, ambient noise. As before, Fred’s voice never really cares for weight of any kind; his thin, and haunting notes are merely an accompaniment to the music here, but he’s more than aware that this unfussy, minimalist approach really works, and those who’ve followed Abong’s solo outings since 2018’s ‘Homeless’ will certainly appreciate this number.

At first, the title cut sounds far more like a call back to ‘Homeless’ with its heavily strummed chords and deep vocal, but as with a lot of the material on ‘Fear Pageant’, Abong merely uses that as a base. The eventual music that grows from those chords is far grander, but without any feeling of self-importance. During the first verse, the simple chord progression is purely accompanied by voice and click track, but the arrival of a deep bass brings a necessary weight, and eventually, a few shimmering dreampop guitars and keys ensure something that could’ve sounded like a demo sketch feels very satisfying. Just as you’ve got the measure of the soft melody, Abong turns it on its head and shifts everything into another waltz, which allows for some brilliantly haunting keys to punch through. The end result sounds like a weird carnival helmed by Mike Johnson, but in time, it actually becomes one of the album’s best tunes. A bigger acoustic sound drives ‘Reservoirs’, making it one of the album’s more traditional sounding arrangements. In some ways, the presence of a few cool vibraphone sounds makes it sound like a homage to Tim Buckley circa ‘Blue Afternoon’ to begin with, but once the tune finds its feet with a steady rhythm, a warming bass and a blanket of keys, it takes on its own identity. It’s a little busier than a lot of the material here – especially once a prog-ish keyboard solo takes centre stage – but there’s a familiar voice amid the bigger sounds which gives everything a focus. Abong’s abilities to take his sound into a new direction here without alienating his fans is impressive, and the arrival of a very European accordion riff during the coda reinforces his desire to gently experiment. It might not have the easy appeal of ‘Bats’, but between a kitchen sink arrangement and a fine and moody vocal, it becomes another of the album’s standouts.

Despite Fred having covered ‘In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning’ on the ‘Yellowthroat’ album, ‘My Way’ – thankfully – isn’t a cover of the Sinatra tune, but something more interesting. When released as a single a few weeks ahead of ‘Fear Pageant’ it gave fans a reasonable glimpse of things to come, without giving everything away. Its faux crowd noises set up an odd atmosphere at the outset, whilst Fred mixes big drum rolls with pulsing keys, giving the impression it’s building up to something. It then wrong-foots the listener by abandoning that for a semi-acoustic waltz, and although the album features a couple of similar arrangements, Abong actually offers something a little fuller here, with drums and retro keyboard sounds joining the strums and sad vocal. In terms of “traditional song”, this is as good as it gets, with Fred channelling Tindersticks whilst the instrumental elements weave between mellow indie fare and strange electronic treatments. It’s very much the heart of the album, and yet it still doesn’t give all of its musical secrets away. It’s neither as lovely as ‘Shadows’, or as complex as ‘Hungry Ghost’, but at the same time, there’s something about it that feels like the near-perfect culmination of Abong’s experiments to date.

At other points on this very introspective musical journey, ‘Sailor’ returns to the heavy chord patterns of Abong’s early work, and couples them with one of his deepest ever vocals and some very homespun keys, and ‘Father’ blends a typical arrangement with a layer of keys and a few drones for dramatic effect. Neither will surprise any of Fred’s fans, but are nicely presented in their own lo-fi way. Any predictable moments are offset by ‘America 808’, a deep cut where Abong stokes up the keys and doomy bass, almost hinting at a love for one of Giorgio Moroder’s unsettling soundtracks. In tandem with the disquieting, sparse arrangement, he reaches into his past for a lyric about immigration, his father coming from South East Asia for a new life, his mother dying in America, and how he has “nothing to give America”. It says a lot about the state of The States at the time of this recording – its lack of gun control, back-pedalling on abortion laws and Donald Trump running for presidency for a second time – that Fred would feel so absolutely bereft, but it’s to the listener’s benefit. This utterly bleak statement isn’t just one of the best tracks on ‘Fear Pageant’, but one of the most interesting – and stark – of his solo career. It has a hearty nihilism that even Red House Painters would’ve found daunting.

As always, the focus here is more on atmospheres and moods than a radio friendly sheen, but Abong’s self-made world continues to be strangely fascinating. Like an uneasy Tindersticks, throughout this album’s ten songs, Fred’s downbeat sound doesn’t fit easily with a specific time or into an obvious genre, but for those who enjoyed the slightly slicker ‘Yellowthroat’, ‘Fear Pageant’ will be a treat. As always, it takes a little while for most of the material to warm up, but when it does, it becomes clear that this album is another welcome addition to the growing Abong canon.

July/August 2023