On Form & Control, the 2012 reincarnation of The Phenomenal Handclap Band has zeroed in on a more consistent sound than what they put together on their 2009 self-titled hodgepodge debut. Granted, that debut turned some heads – but with impressive guest stars like Jon Spencer and members of TV on the Radio, and groovy tunes that each caught ears for different reasons, how could it have not? It’s a bit too obvious that the main (and perhaps only) problem with the debut was that it touched on too many sounds. Each time the long album finished spinning, we were left unknowing who exactly The Phenomenal Handclap Band was, if they’d ever appear again, or if the album was just an excuse by DJ’s-turned-producers Daniel Collas and Sean Marquand to collaborate with so many renowned musicians. The music itself was great, even if it didn’t jibe as one artistic whole. With Form and Control, we get a better sense that maybe, just maybe, PHB has something to offer besides a sweet guest list – a sound that flows and feels like an actual band.
From the first moment of opening track “Following” on Form, Collas and Marquand go back to their now-obvious roots of unabashed ‘80s synth-pop, a blue and red strobe light dance party. Their sound is enhanced by the use of real (as opposed to digital) drums, bass, and guitars, offering a certain authenticity, and the track’s infectious beat could start a dance party just about anywhere. Even in this digital age, it is still impossible to create the same substance with programmed instruments. Thankfully, PHB knows this and uses it to their advantage.
Form, at almost 20 minutes shorter than their debut, is just about the perfect length. A 48-minute record gives you enough to settle into a groove but does not wear out its welcome. Instead, when it finishes, you are satisfied. For the entirety of the disc, that groove is stellar and consistent, rarely too slow and almost never rushed – listenable in a variety of settings. And though it does flow around a unified sound, Collas’ and Marquand’s other influences are still present. “The Written Word” has a somewhat prog-rock beginning but moves into a danceable chorus. “Form & Control”, the album’s title track, at times has the momentous intensity of a sports anthem, and “Afterglow”, “Winter Falls”, and “All Cliches” have hints of ‘90s alternative rock. Meanwhile, each song settles back into the comfort of ‘80s pop and synthesized melody, leaving a cohesive and, therefore, memorable, sound.
As sophomore efforts go, Form & Control is a great success. It proves that PHB is capable of more and has higher aspirations – but it still leaves the door open for the group to move in different directions. Unfortunately, what it lacks are hooks. “Following” serves as a good single but is not necessarily timeless, and “The Unknown Faces at Father James Park” is definitely ear-catching but likely too obscure to hit it big. What we’re left with is, yes, insurance that PHB can cut solid tracks, but more so, it is a stepping stone to something that could, truly, be as phenomenal as their name begs.