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Fond Han - "Sham Cloud" | Album Review

by Josh Ginsberg (@world0fdarkness)

The amaranthine cipher of Sham Cloud’s front cover articulates the album’s dominant aesthetic more effectively than words can. Divided into uneven quadrants, the image is split with a thin black horizon; there’s more ground than sky and the two lines that tilt upwards and inward to its vanishing point evoke an endless road. Whatever it is we’re looking at, it seems to stare back. Do a pair of lifeless Muppet eyes peer at you from its shadows? Or is that the ear of an ashen person, folding into himself? Is there an eye within that ear? The patterns of its component pieces veer from the loud familiarity of a grandmother’s embroidery to the strange alien fractals of an extraterrestrial topography. Are those two moons or two worlds, on the verge of collision? Is this the American highway, in Predator vision? Is the texture of the image a digital mirage, the fuzz of pixels, or knitted by human fingers, tangible? Is it violent or reassuring? A specter, from which I must recoil, and fast, or a hug? Is it an extinct being returned to the world of the living? Or a projection of a brand new form, yet to come?

Just as the cover of Sham Cloud suggests, Fond Han’s music reflects an aesthetic commitment to fragmentation and juxtaposition. Fond Han has the propensity to veer between extremes at the drop of a hat, dynamically, tonally and emotionally. On “Shammed,” the music bobs like a buoy one moment, and explodes like the surface of the water when I shark jumps out of it the next. It shifts from foot to foot, gently, as if idly milling about outside a 7/11, waiting for its friends to finish paying inside, out in the still autumn air. But before that moment can be said to have fully passed, and then it changes. Sometimes this shift feels like someone has taken you by the shoulders and shaken you extremely violently, like you’re the biggest idiot in the world, who’s made a huge mistake, and has no idea what he’s just done. There are songs that exude such frenetic chaos that your brain will feel like you’ve been head banging, even if you’ve been perfectly still. It does not move from “A” to “B”. What was once “A” is simply “B” now. The emotional register of Sham Cloud is heavy even when its guitars weave gently.
Fond Han’s music is defined by the interplay between its trebly, spidery guitars--which are played with the strange synergy of a tandem but the tonal uniformity of one player--and the distortion of its hot, shambling drums, which lurch and reverberate erratically at the foundation of the mix. The twang and buzz of its guitars feels familiar—sometimes pastoral enough to evoke early Red House Painters—but that cold clarity disappears in a flash, supplanted by a tone like black, crumbling carbon. Achy, searching vocals enter fray when they can, although there are many moments when the powerful racket of Fond Han’s guitars and drums feels insurmountable. Allowing Thomas Baumann’s voice to be eclipsed by the noise of the band helps the band pad their already formidable musical might.
Fond Han exists in the space between homey and alien. The sensations of longing and anxiety that pervade Sham Cloud’s songs feel human but you can never get close enough to be totally sure that they’re real and not just lifelike. The emotional content of songs like “IDDV” feels familiar at first—contemplative and wispy, during its intro, wound-up and dissatisfied during its verses, cathartic and expressive during its chorus. We’ve followed that map, or a trajectory like it, many times before. But when you try to latch onto Thomas Baumann’s words, their meaning remains largely indeterminate, imbibing the arc of the song with mystery. Random lines explode through the mix—“I won’t see you again” or “hey I’ve got a girl, she likes the things that I like”—semantic stalactites at which listeners may leap and grasp, in order to construct a cohesive theme, but they do so to little avail. The lion’s share of Baumann’s lyrics will elude you, hidden as they are beneath the swelling guitars and jagged drums—lost keys all but invisible beneath the ferns and dead leaves that crowd the forest floor. I will always wonder what beauty hides beneath the sunny noise of “Cali Cruiser,” between the vivid impressionism of lyrics like “windows up / now they’re down and I drive everywhere” and “I just want to taste some skin or some greasy food.” Fond Han remain mysterious. The lyrics that do cut through, like Baumann’s plea of “text me back” are curated for maximum resonance and further enhanced by the fact that only a fraction of the lyrics is decipherable.