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).
On Physicalist, the band’s third full-length album, they’ve tweaked the formula a bit, and it works beautifully. John Also Bennett replaced Sophie Lam (joining original members George Bennett – no relation – and Mark Dwinell), they switched labels from Spectrum Spools to Kranky, and they also began embracing acoustic instruments (although their rich synthetic sound is still gloriously present here).
Kicking off the album in a sweeping, dramatic fashion, “Collapse of Materialists” serves as an appropriate overture, with washes of percussion-free keyboards acting as the sonic equivalent of a band starting its engines. But the motorik beats make their first appearance early on – “Sane Man,” the album’s second track, allows the band to flex its Krautrock muscles with an insistent tempo that’s tempered nicely with a rich, warm blend of synth layers and intertwining melodies that are both catchy and sophisticated.
For a band that can come off as coldly calculated, Forma are totally rooted in improvisation, and a song like “Ghosts” is a beautiful example of their template: a smart, complex keyboard sequence begins, other keyboards weave in and out, an unwavering beat is introduced, and the band begin pouring in more sounds that add to the richness of the track. Not only do Forma have a way with giving electronics an oddly warm, human vibe; they also give their synth-heavy atmosphere plenty of room to breathe and explore. It’s a unique yet rewarding listen.
The band’s move from an all-electronic concept to one that allows for more organic sounds works to their advantage: simply put, it gives the songs a greater depth and variety. “Maxwell’s Demon” chugs along like an old Neu! classic, giving the sonic impression of a futuristic Sunday drive through the country, but dramatic grand piano chords occasionally punctuate the beats and provide a small yet meaningful new dimension.
The mix of synthetic and organic also provides stunning results that recall artists that thrived in another era. “Descent” is a minor-key miracle, a dark, syncopated number reminiscent of Giorgio Moroder’s Midnight Express soundtrack. It gives off a feeling of despair with a hint of hopefulness, further proof that Forma’s complex, compelling instrumentation can give off plenty of emotion.
The move to a more organic sound is perhaps never more blatant as in the album’s closing track, “Improvisation for Flute and Piano”, which sounds as if the band packed up the electronics at the end of a gig and decided to noodle around on old-school instrumentation as a post-show ritual. It’s a dark, gorgeous piece of music that allows Forma to move into uncharted waters yet make it seem uncommonly natural.
Forma have grown considerably over their relatively short existence, and as Physicalist proves, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them continue to expand their horizons over their next few albums. This is a band with a refreshing penchant for taking chances and exploring new ideas.