- 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."
When FORMA got started on their third full-length, they distanced themselves from the dance floor. Instead of tightly structured grooves, they created rhythms that flow naturally and effortlessly, striving for loose and spontaneous ensemble interplay, like a jazz trio. The result is Physicalist, a sprawling album for Kranky that was recorded in just five days. It includes not just synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines but pianos, flutes and live percussion as well.
Each half of the record focuses on a different side of FORMA's newly expanded sound. While the first finds them largely in synth mode, the second relies heavily on acoustic instrumentation. The first part sounds a lot like FORMA's two Spectrum Spools albums. "Spin Glass" is built from delicately bubbling arpeggios and whirring motorik rhythms infused with Stereolab-style pop. But there are also some conspicuous tweaks. The melodic pointillism that "Ghosts" centers on is more rooted in the modal clustering of Terry Riley than the spectral drift of Cluster or Harmonia.
The album's second half contains fewer rhythmic elements. On the electroacoustic meditation "As If Pianos Grew On Trees," the sustain from Bennett's piano fuses with hulking synth splashes to produce a rippling, static-charged atmosphere. "Improvisation For Flute And Piano" is exactly that. These are fully conceived works from musicians with significant experience in live band performance. Bennett is classically trained on piano and flute, Dwinell has released minimalist avant-rock as Nonloc, and George Bennett spent years behind a traditional drum kit.
The only sticking point with Physicalist is how it presents the trio's expanded sound. By front-loading the album with the most rhythmic material, the second half winds up being too slow and introspective. Fans of ambient music might not have any problem with the sequencing, hunkering down for the entirety of the second disc with contemplative relish. Some, on the other hand, might prefer a more thorough integration between the two sounds, which might have created a more engrossing sonic journey. That said, Physicalist is another high-quality release from one of this decade's most inventive bands in synthesizer music.
01. Collapse Of Materialists
02. Sane Man
03. Spin Glass
05. Maxwell's Demon
07. Wanderer Imitates A Cloud
08. As If Pianos Grew On Trees
09. Collapse Of Materialists
11. Improvisation For Flute And Piano