The Californian band known as Film School has been through a number of changes these past few years. As the brainchild of Greg Bertens, the band started in the late 90s as largely a solo effort with contributions from various friends and musicians. A full lineup was officially solidified after Film School’s 2001 debut album came out, though it’d take them until 2006 to craft a follow-up. That self-titled second album showed how significantly things had changed in the 5 years between records as Film School’s sound went in a much darker and heavier direction. They began to pull in comparisons to Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen while also bringing out a more shoegazey My Bloody Valentine-infused vibe. The sound would dive even further into the hazy and progressive on 2007’s “Hideout”, and by that time the band members had all changed once again, save for Bertens. Now three years later, that 2007 lineup continues to hold strong and Film School are returning with a new record titled “Fission”. Would it surprise you to learn that though the faces may not have changed in the last 3 years, the music has? That’s true not only for trends across indie rock in general, but of course for Film School as well.
Film School have, by all accounts, softened up just a little bit on “Fission”. The heavy and distorted guitars are much less dominant, replaced instead by a lighter, more traditional and “commercially friendly” set of arrangements. Things aren’t necessarily brighter, but the shoegaze element of their sound has been pulled back significantly in an attempt to expand their range. That’s evident from the very first song “Heart Full of Pentagons”, which brings in some synths and has strongly assisted backing vocals from bassist Lorelei Plotczyk. The synths are actually pretty dominant across the entire record, giving the band’s sound a bit more of an 80s influence but never to the point where it overwhelms the very present era this music was made in. Plotczyk also takes on a significantly increased role on “Fission”, finally being allowed to stretch a bit and take lead vocals on a handful of tracks. She’s got a sweetly powerful voice and is a killer bass player, so that move makes a mountain’s worth of sense. Every song she has a large stake in is automatically better for it, and there’s a certain bit of sunshine that peers through the tones of grey on those tracks as well. Looks like she’s no longer the undervalued member of Film School.
The biggest problem with “Fission” is its inability to maintain a consistent sound for the duration. Unlike the band’s last two records, which were all fuzzed out and thematically sound, there’s a lot more going on with this new record and little rhyme or reason as to how it all makes sense collectively. Take each track individually and you’re bound to discover that almost every one is a potential single of some caliber, be it the National-esque “Bones” or “Meet Around 10” which has an almost Yo La Tengo feel to it. “Sunny Day”, has jangly guitars and Plotczyk’s vocals which make for a delightfully hazy track that practically screams Asobi Seksu. It’s accessible, yes, but also all over the place. If the songs actually felt related to one another rather than distant strangers, “Fission” would be a far stronger record overall.
With weakness also comes strength as well, because when Film School aren’t working to mimic one of their myriad of influences, they can actually produce something that sounds completely fresh and original. The song “Direct” is the biggest example of this, blending some shoegaze guitars with a mixture of live and programmed drums and electro that may not be immensely addictive but carries a certain power that stops you dead in your tracks. Dropping in right at the center of the album, it serves as one of the few pieces that unites Film School’s past, present and future sounds. They could have built the entire record based off that song and it might have worked in mindblowing fashion.
The good news for Film School devotees is that nothing on “Fission” feels altogether unfamiliar. The same band is underneath the various sounds you’re hearing and though they do their damndest to put their old tendencies to rest, you can still pick up on them should you listen carefully enough. What this album really provides for the band is a set of options. The word “fission” is defined as the splitting of an object into two parts, and that’s a relatively accurate description of what’s going on with this record sonically. Film School have created a crossroads for themselves where the songs on the album point at a few different ways they could go. As evidenced by the strength of many of the songs, chances are they’ll be fine no matter what direction they choose, assuming they do so for their next record. Their biggest mistake could be to make yet another sonically mixed collection of songs whose only commonality would be that they showed up together. It’s like “The Breakfast Club” of music in that a wide array of people are forced to sit in detention together. In the end they all come away with a better appreciation for one another, but expecting them to all become lifelong friends is far too unrealistic a concept. The fantasy of making “Fission” work from beginning to end is just that, but you’ll learn plenty along the way and will hopefully be more accepting the next time Film School decides to pull a 180 on us and move in yet another random direction.