FRED ABONG – Blindness

Released just seven months after ‘Fear Pageant’, most of Fred Abong’s 2024 album ‘Blindness’ feels as different from its predecessor as ‘Fear Pageant’ had sometimes felt from the slightly slicker ‘Yellowthroat’. On a basic level, it’s great to hear the artist continually evolving, but that becomes more impressive once you consider the relatively lo-fi soundscapes that Abong often favours. A good chunk of this album doesn’t just represent a step forward, but a massive leap sideways into a world of the unexpected.

He presents one of the most striking musical shifts immediately, when ‘Ice Blink’ opens the ten song collection with a wash of cold synths, setting a very 80s sound in place, hinting at a love of old electronica based soundtracks. Over the wavering backdrop, Abong drops hard piano chords and a minimalist beat, further adding to a detached, retro sound. Pretty much the only obvious link with his musical past is the vocal, and his deep, velvety tones are intent on keeping everything low key. That continues to be the case when his mumble-croon sweeps its way over a busier piano riff and a world of wobbly synths that are both closer to the Richard Barbieri universe than Fred’s indie rock past. The track takes yet another dramatic turn when the pianos give way to long synth notes and a vaguely oriental rhythm which is used as a bridge into the most unexpected: a final passage paying homage to KPM library music that sounds like it should soundtrack a TV comedy sketch set in a supermarket. Easy listening jazz with copious amounts of bell-like noise? This feels like a complete disconnect from Abong’s back-catalogue but, Christ, it’s great – and it suddenly becomes much clearer why ‘Blindness’ has found a home on Moochin’ About, a record label with a history of issuing lavish box sets of jazz soundtracks.

There’s also a nod to the world of soundtracks throughout ‘Wool’, a tune where Fred lays down a series of long, droning chords peppered with string-like sounds and minimalist beats. Musically, it feels like an old David Sylvian sketch colliding with something from a Vangelis experiment circa 1980. It never aims to be easy listening; if anything, its dark moods aim to unsettle the listener, and the mumbling vocal is always keen to add to the general unease. Keeping with a dour musical theme, ‘Paint Me’ reintroduces the kind of hushed vocal that was used very effectively on ‘Yellowthroat’, but its parping keys and whirring elements ensure the first part of the track feels different again. The arrival of an almost danceable drum loop lifts everything brilliantly, but much like the best bits of this album’s other songs, the magic only really happens once a bright sounding piano adds a layer of sound that could almost be a demo sketch from the Dream Academy notebook.

A pounding rhythm and buoyant percussion opens the title cut, and with a broader melody used to underscore a moody vocal, this slightly more accessible offering occasionally sounds like a tribute to mid/late 80s Leonard Cohen. Fred’s vocal won’t necessarily click with the less patient ear, but there are some great alt-pop flourishes in the music itself. The clean piano, used to fill in a few huge melodic passages, comes with a faint air of The Blue Nile and later Talk Talk. That alone makes this song stand out, and even without an obvious chorus hook, the number actually marks a place as one of Abong’s finest this time around. In a different mood, the return to very alternative 80s sounds during ‘Buzzards’ brings a very nostalgic bent, since it pulls bits from the soundscapes of Sylvian and Karn and goth pop in equal measure. You won’t find any obviously hummable hooks, or lilting elements, but between the slow, almost dreamlike melody and Abong’s now trademark mumbling, the short number gives this album a surprisingly strong centrepiece.

The opening of ‘Heaven’, too, finds Abong exploring new territory. It isn’t especially new ground stylistically, since the shimmering dream pop guitars and airy qualities at the outset are obviously derived from some of his old 4AD peers, but it’s pleasing to hear this musician still has a great love for older alternative sounds. Beyond that, the number – released as this album’s first single – retains various elements that still feel familiar. Firstly, there’s Fred’s understated but distinctive vocal, and that fills the bulk of this number with deep, natural sounds that are the natural successor to ‘Yellowthroat’. Then there’s the melody itself, and the darker moments certainly tally with a mood that fans have come to expect, and the brief acoustic flourish at this song’s end even gives a nod to Abong’s earlier solo sketches. Perhaps most strikingly of all, whether intentional or not, is the main hook’s concession to the ‘Lady In The Radiator Song’ from David Lynch’s classic mind-bender ‘Eraserhead’. Abong’s delivery of the word “Heaven”, in this instance, almost seems to naturally want to slide into that melody, and once heard, cannot be unheard. This album features much better tracks (‘Ice Blink’, ‘Buzzards’) and songs with a much bigger sound, relatively speaking (‘Ice Blink’, ‘Blindness’), but in terms of capturing the pure essence of solo Abong, this ticks a lot of the obvious boxes, making it the right choice for pre-release primer.

‘Listening’ adds to the moody fare by opening with funereal piano chords and a Cohen-esque vibe, but if you’ve made it this far into the album, you’ll find more enjoyment from Fred’s sadcore sounds, especially once the slow moving melody twists briefly into something a little busier, teasing with synth based fills and an a semi-acoustic, descending melody. The final movement here actually offers one of the album’s more unexpected moments when an array of toms underscores the slow piano. It creates a feeling of movement without ever feeling busy, and in doing so, becomes the perfect example of this album’s understated, yet strangely cinematic sound. A little more accessible, ‘Penny Parade’ returns to some Paul Buchanan inspired minimalism by way of a strong intro, before twisting into a brilliantly downbeat sound that could be an extension of the Red House Painters universe. At the point where you start to accept that Abong will get the most out of one of this album’s stronger melodies, he casts it aside in favour of even more darkness, applying a fluid bass sound over a soft piano. And then, it’s all change again for a quiet nod to goth pop, as his voice croons over strident chords and soaring synth sounds. This is clearly four musical sketches sewn together, but somehow it works, and no matter how different some of ‘Blindness’ has been in comparison to some of Abong’s previous recordings, the sketchy approach remains perfect for his homespun style.

‘Blindness’ is an album where the best songs don’t reveal themselves immediately, making it a DIY work that is not in tune with the era’s rather disposable approach to music, but in time, the lack of “quick fix” ultimately works to the material’s advantage. Those who’ve followed Fred’s progress as a solo artist since 2018’s ‘Homeless’ EP will love most of what’s being offered here, whilst those still unfamiliar with his legacy away from the obviously more commercial Belly will find it pretty stark, all things considered. It won’t be the kind of record that’ll suit everyone, but those able to find their way beneath a rather bleak exterior will discover a selection of recordings with a rich and honest core.

May 2024