Listeners of Fear of Men's second album, Fall Forever, are likely to notice there's something different about the UK-based indie pop outfit this time around. From the first track, "Vesta," the band immediately seems to strike a much darker and more atmospheric chord than that of their dreamier, more immediate debut album, 2014's Loom. It's not a wholesale transformation into goth-rock or doom metal or anything so obvious, but the darkness is there, lurking within the grooves.
When hearing the subtly haunted tones of the record, it's hard to overlook the context and surroundings in which it was created. While the band was writing the album, they made their home base inside an abandoned slaughterhouse in rural Kent, England. And as it turns out, the locale had an even more sinister background than it appeared, says vocalist Jessica Weiss.
"We practice on a farm in the middle of nowhere, so it was a space we found through that," she says in an email interview. "The isolation and the sense of bloody history—someone hung themselves in the space, too—felt pretty apt for some of the starker thoughts we wanted to put across."
Fall Forever, released in June via Kanine Records, is a recognizably different album than its predecessor, and its genesis in an empty abattoir only scratches the surface of their evolution. Where once Fear of Men wrapped their songs in gorgeously jangly guitars, this time around, Weiss, Daniel Falvey and Mike Miles have transitioned deeper into a work of gauzy layers of synthesizer, buzzing distortion and stark, open spaces. Compare the acoustic strums and plinking piano of 2014's "Green Sea" and the danceable weirdness of new track "Trauma," and you might not immediately conclude they're the same band.
While concise at just a half-hour long, Fall Forever finds Fear of Men embracing their most adventurous instincts yet. The upbeat "Undine," for instance, has an immediacy that some of the album's more abstract exercises don't. And yet, it's difficult to make out what instruments are being played on first listen—the melody could be provided by a guitar, or a synth, or some combination of the two. Similarly, the bright "A Memory" is built on sparse sample surges, pretty yet maintaining a constant tension.
After Loom, says Falvey, it was important for Fear of Men to break new ground with this set of songs.
"We're definitely a band that doesn't like to repeat ideas, we always want to challenge ourselves," he says. "I think you can hear the progression of the band clearly across our back catalogue from our early demos to Fall Forever. A lot of my favorite bands didn't arrive fully formed, but came to a unique sound naturally through playing and recording. Part of the idea to bring more electronics and synthetic elements into the mix was to ensure that we were looking forward. We don't really like the idea of imitating genres or eras in music, we're more interested in creating our own language. Expanding the tools at our disposal makes sense in exploring that."
One element that's remained constant in the group's music is Weiss' vocals. Her delivery is powerful yet subtle, her pitch-perfect tones embodying a quiet intensity. Yet much of that intensity comes directly from her lyrical content, which often comes with imagery much more violent and visceral than her subdued approach might suggest. Throughout various songs on Fall Forever, her narratives of loneliness, regret and longing take on the quality of body horror. On opener "Vesta," she's literally in flames, pining for another: "Oh, I'm set alight, how I burn for you." And in "Trauma," perhaps ironically the catchiest song on the album, she turns to a similar fate as a kind of cleansing ritual: "I burn my body on the fire...I'm as clean as the shame will allow."
It's pretty heavy stuff for an indie pop record. And Weiss, herself, admits that she often feels conflicted about the kind of lyrical menace she sometimes courts. Yet she also finds a lot of positives in pursuing such an aesthetic course.
"What I write about is what I think about and who I am as a person," she says. "I think there's a lot of beauty in darkness, but I'm also in constant conflict about whether this is cathartic and a way to work through traumatic situations or whether replaying them drags you further into the hole. I don't have an answer yet."
For as much as Fall Forever is a work of emotional exorcism, therapeutic catharsis and aesthetic darkness, it represents an important moment of growth for the band. And that's artistic and personal growth. As the band embarks on a tour to support the album's release in North America, Weiss reflects on how their time spent working together has strengthened Fear of Men as a unit, or in her words, a family.
"Just as we all evolve as people and grow and learn, we've learned about our instruments and songwriting and how to work together," she says. "Being in a band is a lot like a marriage or a family—you make decisions together, you take care of each other, you're in it for the long haul."
Fear of Men play July 19 at The Hideout