Even though Film School is based in San Francisco, it's not a stretch to imagine the American quintet circa late '80s or early '90s, experimenting with wavy distortions and atmospherics in a friend's London or Birmingham basement. Synthesizer drones, feedback-soaked guitars and drifting, faintly Cure-like vocals fill the songs, poking into the grooves of some heavy sponge of a track, full until brimming over with noise. It's no surprise then that their show Sunday at the Mercury Lounge confirmed what frequent listens to their self-titled debut on Beggars suggest: this is a great band, with lots of promise and a love for thickets of '80s noise.
Still getting a handle on their new or borrowed equipment -- guitars, bass, drums, keyboard, pedals, and amplifiers -- the band played without skipping much of a beat, especially considering nearly all of their gear (including a vintage 70s Fender tube amp, one of the intangibles lending to their dense, layered sound) and their tour van were stolen a few days earlier. Though the band said they felt and heard the difference with the replacements, you'd be hard-pressed to notice as they opened with "On and On," the bass lines setting the head-nodding groove and the guitars alternating between sheets of noise and rock and roll riffs. Feeding sounds through different knobbed settings on their pedals, guitarist Nyles Lannon was paying near equal parts attention to his feet as his hands, switching from one sound setting on the floor pedal to the other on the off-beats.
That's the thing with Film School. Effects, echoes and distortions, wall of sound moments built on guitars and synthesizers that rise and fall in a way that sounds far more organic than mechanical, more energized than sleep-inducing. During the band's playing of "It's a Deep Deep Lake," you could hear each of the players in tension with each other, building momentum and letting it subside, with drummer Donny Newenhouse pounding away at the drums in tempered fits and stops, orchestral mallets (rounded at the tip, with a fuzz of white cotton-ball-like material surrounding the top to soften the crash) in rapid, successive motion. Again, in "Like You Know," momentum graduated along the winding melodies of lead Krayg Burton's vocals. His singing, like the rise and fall of the songs themselves, lends a certain vulnerability to the tracks, a sense of yearning without being morose.
Rather than floating away onto themselves, though, the band kept its rock and roll head firmly attached during the show, with plenty of crackling electric guitar lines and an upbeat pop aesthetic peeking through the distortions -- throwbacks to the Cure and Depeche Mode, but packaged in soundscapes that sound distinctly theirs. "Pitfalls," pinned down by an infectious bass line and synthesizer effects wavering in the background, had guitars whizzing high and low behind Burton's punctuated shouts of "stop" and "go." Live and on the record, it's a great track. And then there was "Breet," with a catchy looping guitar line against a synth backdrop and tightly rapping drums, or "Harmed," which started with a looping synth riff only to explode into an onslaught of noise. At one point in the set, all band members banged away at their instruments, undulating guitar and bass strings reverberating along effected vocals, all the band members intent on edging out to the max of the sound their instruments could produce.
Live -- but more readily apparent during listens to the record -- the songs may sound meandering, but their construction betrays a much more conscious instrumental scheme, with a streak of synthesizer through a guitar line here, or the sudden but not out of place tempo change from slow strumming to rhythmic spatters there. It's refreshing to hear a band take such measures to texture their songs with sophistication, and at the same time avoid pretension.
Their closing song "11:11" was in a number of ways their best moment of the night, letting out a sigh of post-punk into the air. One, they emerged out of their well-practiced mode, breaking out of the consistent drones and melodic lines -- grown up as they are -- toward something sharper, more dissonant. Burton's vocals, steering away from the plaintive, turned into rock and roll brattiness of the I-told-you-so variety. Indeed, if there's a complaint to be lodged, it would have been nice to see the band take on more of the rock and roll swagger to diversify the serious tone of the rest of the songs. Two, while most of the set bore striking resemblance to the way the songs sound on the record, the band's live playing of "11:11" deviated from the record's mold in the very way it should,”pushing the limits of loudness, blurring the lines between one instrument's sound and the other, an aural mish mash that can't be fully conveyed or contained on a recorded format, crashing cymbals and fuzzed bass lines feeding back into the mic-ed amps on the stage floor.
Borrowed instruments in hand, Film School made no admission, express or implied, of the limitations set by their latest misadventure on tour. They didn't have to. Their sound was consistent, almost to a fault, with their latest and lovely record. Catch the band at South by Southwest this weekend or the remaining shows littered across their trail back to London, I mean, eh hem, San Francisco. - Christine Back Ms. Back lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn with three guitars, a 1950s Mason & Hamlin piano, and a beagle. When not studying legal doctrine and social justice law, she fronts the indie-rock band Que Verde and dabbles in art, film, and writing projects.