FORMA’s previous album, Physicalist, was the sound of a band boldly pushing themselves. It was an expansive matrix of boundless arpeggios, winding drones and grand, landscaped textures. It saw the ambitious New Yorkers split their assiduously blended electro-acoustic aesthetic in half: sides one and two were bubbling neo-kosmische, and three and four were 21st-century minimalism with woodwinds and pianos. The LP’s creation also required that Mark Dwinell, George Bennett and John Also Bennett forgo something that made them truly singular: their gift for compact integration. At the turn of the ’10s, many experimental synth bands in the US and Europe seemed to be striving for Emerald’s longform approach. But FORMA were different. Their first two albums felt as influenced by the condensed synth abstractions of OMD’s synth pop classic Dazzle Ships as the sprawling compositions found in the Sky Records catalog. Where those first two records left you wanting more, Physicalist left you stuffed.
Semblance seems to reconcile these differences. But how does a band become both compact and expansive? The trio has found a way by thinking vertically rather than horizontally. With seven tracks totalling just 39 minutes, Semblance returns FORMA to their shorter-is-better ethos. But its intricately arranged pieces (as well as its finely calibrated sequencing) contain just as much data as Physicalist, only now the details are stacked on top of each other.
The first two pieces, “Crossings” and “Ostinato,” drop listeners into towering cylinders of curving strings, brittle melodic patterns and humid percussion, both live and programmed, all revolving around one another like cogs and gears. It’s only after repeated spins that your ears can even begin to map out all the structural details, like how the strings split into myriad shades on the former, or the way crisp handclaps glide through the latter’s languid beat.
Though it’s accessible, Semblance is also complex. This extends to the record’s emotional dimensions, too. A piece like “FORMA 199,” from their 2011 debut, shimmered in a way that recalled the hippie optimism of kosmische’s ’70s roots. On “New City,” the album’s apex, they up the ante. Anchored by uplifting piano chords, guitars and rolling toms that echo Spiritualized’s cosmic meditations, it’s a bona fide yearning for salvation. Far more earthbound, yet no less rich, is “Three-Two,” the LP’s most rhythmically complex track. It utilizes the same cylindrical scheme as “Crossings” and “Ostinato,” but it’s denser, with swirling rhythms revealing what sound like steel drums, as well as a knottily looped bassline. Yet for all its frenetic pointillism, there’s also something otherworldly about it. Floating far above the groove are waves of mist-shrouded chords and reverberating horns. Is “Three-Two” meant to evoke a dreamy, pastel-soaked Caribbean sunset or the breathless chaos of a Haitian street festival? That indecision is the focus of the piece, gradually intensifying both poles until the anxiety threatens to boil over. The LP then fades into “Rebreather,” a snippet of flute-suffused new age relaxation.
Semblance also illustrates the trio’s proficiency in marrying electronics and analog instruments. That’s largely because they’re so well fused it’s difficult to tell where the mensch ends and the maschine begins. (Check out the Yellow Magic Orchestra-flavored “Cut-Up” as a quirky example.) But the LP is also notable because very few of this century’s neo-kosmische explorers possess nearly as much versatility and formal training as FORMA. The sheer number of different tools and skills they bring to the job is staggering. That’s a big reason why, nearly a decade after the scene’s initial explosion, they’re still propelling the sound forward.
– Resident Advisor