Release Date: Sep 23, 2016
Record label: Kranky
Genre(s): Electronic, Techno, Experimental Ambient, Ambient Techno, Experimental Electro
Compared to most early 21st century groups making music on analog synthesizers and taking inspiration from the '70s and '80s pioneers of electronic music, Brooklyn trio Forma have always made some of the warmest, most inviting music. They have their darker, more sinister moments, particularly on their second album, Off/On (2012), but most of their recordings don't sound like they're trying to replicate the mood of a Dario Argento film. Instead, they have a rolling, pastoral sound in line with Cluster at their most tuneful and accessible, or Neu! minus guitars and acoustic drums.
The fantasy-meets-pastoral artwork that Robert Beatty (Three Legged Race, Hair Police) produced for Physicalist, the third LP from New York-based synthesists Forma, is a direct reflection of the direction that the group is now exploring. The trio released a pair of successful LPs for the Editions Mego spin-off label Spectrum Spools earlier this decade that were heavily indebted to the Berlin School branch of Krautrock; with this record, they've incorporated flute, piano and acoustic percussion to root their sound within the confines of their home planet. That's not to say that the synths have disappeared — there are plenty of angular arpeggios and chilly rhythms to soothe those who crave that 1970s sci-fi atmosphere.
Forma are a band that seem to thrive on contradiction. At first listen, it may seem obvious that their most glaring influences are European forms such as Krautrock, but upon closer inspection, this trio – formed in Brooklyn in 2010 – owe more to American composers such as Harold Budd or Terry Riley. Additionally, for a band that’s existed for less than a decade, they certainly seem to have sprouted up from the Reagan years, with a penchant for cold, stuck-in-time synthesizers and drum machines that either evoke a bygone era or at the very least appear on the soundtrack to some current retro-themed TV show (it wouldn’t seem out of place to hear their ambient soundscapes on Stranger Things or Halt and Catch Fire).
The first FORMA record to come out after John Also Bennett replaced Sophie Lam was 2014's Cool Haptics, an EP that found the reconfigured trio sculpting their synthesizer improvisations into a more formal expression of left-field dance music. But despite FORMA proving adept at crafting a subtly powerful fusion of kosmische, techno and Italo, the group found the experiment too restricting. As cofounder Mark Dwinell explained to AdHoc, "We all found that improvising within [dance music] was extremely challenging as it required constant monitoring of the environment as well as close attention to the process at hand: spontaneously creating novel musical expressions within a constrained set of conditions.
According to Brooklyn kosmische trio Forma, whose newest album Physicalist comes titled after an ontological field of thought concerned with the “physical” nature of all things in existence, the concept of a fully improvised, shape-shifting musical approach is a loaded and perhaps misleading endeavor. “In physicalism, everything is part of an eternal causal chain, where no room exists for human will or choice,” percussionist George Bennett explained in a recent AdHoc interview. John Also Bennett, the newest member of the band, added, “A physicalist might say theoretically that the musical result of our collaboration can be predicted based on the current material state of the surrounding universe.
For their third LP, Physicalist, Forma promised a shift from both the kosmische spirit they accessed on their self-titled 2011 debut and the Berghain-ready 2014 EP Cool Haptics, towards something more American, more human, more ‘physical’. Over the course of the album’s robust runtime (68 minutes), that promise is about halfway fulfilled, as the album’s first act still suggests a deep immersion in the propulsive electronic music of German groups like Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel, and Tangerine Dream, whose influence permeated Forma’s previous efforts. On early Physicalist tracks like ‘Sane Man’ and ‘Maxwell’s Demon’, clever interlocking synthesizer phrases coalesce into rich, layered compositions, with the band riding along an imagined Autobahn for six or seven minutes.