South London quintet, Formation, release a debut packed album with rich grooves tailor made for the dancefloor, but their socio-political ambitions fall disappointingly short.
Indie-pop quintet Formation was formed by brothers Will and Matt Ritson in Wimbeldon, South London in 2013. Following the release of a number of EPs, the group quickly built a strong reputation, applauded for their fusion of styles and influences, and were rewarded with supporting slots on tour alongside Foals and Jagwar Ma. They were subsequently signed to major label Warner Bros. Records in the UK and have been co-signed by cultural pioneers such as Mike Skinner of the Streets (who directed their “The People” video). As a result, expectation levels ahead of the release of their debut album, Look at the Powerful People, are as high as any other British debut in recent years.
With their deference to disco grooves and dance rhythms (and particular love for a cowbell) Formation draw a close comparison with LCD Soundsystem. Their tendency towards other genres, however, also positions them as something of a 21st century Clash, pulling together the many strands of British music from the past 20 years and molding them into a modern, eclectic sound. It is that sound which is the greatest strength of this record, which bounces from track to track with a feel good energy and propulsive tempos.
Their sound is best captured on “Pleasure”, a shuffling track that drives forward to its euphoric chorus and big room synth lines that comes closest to capturing the spirit of James Murphy and contemporaries such as Friendly Fires, as an indie band with an ear for the dancefloor. Elsewhere there are growling basslines on “Drugs”, synthpop of “Blood Red Hand” and organ lines of “Back Then”, which prove there is enough musical range to their work across the ten tracks of the album to sustain interest. Formation’s sound also marks a significant step forward from earlier releases such as “Love”. The synths are bigger, the drums more defined, carrying greater punch and the production cleaner, credit to the investment of major label backing.
Formation’s music is also supported by a strongly developed artistic image, best demonstrated on their music videos. “A Friend” is a bloodied investigation of modern relationships whilst the “Powerful People” video features the UK Bike Life Collective, treading the line between revolutionaries and social nuisances. Those punk ideals are supported by the album artwork of a black denim jack with handcuff clad badges. Formation also promote a message of inclusion and solidarity as a ‘people’ and their rhetoric against the state and ruling elite is central to this. Much like the late '80s / early '90s rave scene, Formation want to use the dancefloor melodies to bring the masses together against the ‘oppressive minority’. However, this ideal is often undermined by the lightweight lyricism that underlines this idea and lack of a clear enemy to rage against.
Social commentaries such as “Drugs”, which reflects on the motivations and mindset behind the use of drugs, and the political notions of “Pleasure” are credible attempts by the band to write music with meaning. “Powerful People” especially, has the feeling of being the intended centerpiece of the record, the call to arms to “Look at the powerful people, stuck in their wonderful world, who is gonna help them, giving them what they deserve”. Whilst these are righteous messages written with all the best intentions, much of the Cowell brothers songwriting lacks clarity and the intended message is lost, falling victim to the need to write something deep and meaningful. There is no obvious enemy in their work, unlike the punk writings of the late '70s or hip-hop in the early '90s.
Look at the Powerful People therefore falls short of its lofty ambitions. Sonically much of the record is fantastic, and you can expect their grooves to be carrying across many festival fields this summer. However, the band has a way to go to fulfill its ambitions and be considered a political band with any real conviction. This is an interesting introduction, and it does more than enough to spike interest, but it will be intriguing to see where Formation take their music and messages next.