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Physicalist Joe Bucciero , October 3rd, 2016 11:16

For their third LP, Physicalist, Forma promised a shift from both the kosmische spirit they accessed on their self-titled 2011 debut and the Berghain-ready 2014 EP Cool Haptics, towards something more American, more human, more ‘physical’. Over the course of the album’s robust runtime (68 minutes), that promise is about halfway fulfilled, as the album’s first act still suggests a deep immersion in the propulsive electronic music of German groups like Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel, and Tangerine Dream, whose influence permeated Forma’s previous efforts.

On early Physicalist tracks like ‘Sane Man’ and ‘Maxwell’s Demon’, clever interlocking synthesizer phrases coalesce into rich, layered compositions, with the band riding along an imagined Autobahn for six or seven minutes. Well-executed and energizing, these pieces sound a bit too automated, like the formidable trio resting in its comfort zone. It’s not until the back end of ‘Maxwell’s Demon’—track five of eleven—that the group’s proposed aesthetic shift comes into full effect: from a network of synthesized rhythms emerges a robust two-note interjection from an acoustic piano. Smoothly integrated, the piano sound nevertheless sets the album on course for the more ‘physical’ (and excellent) second half.

Throughout the final six tracks, Forma, in line with their stated intentions, look to an Anglo-American minimalism tradition, from the repeated arpeggios of Terry Riley (‘Physicalist’ is a good example) to the melodic openness conjured by people like Harold Budd and Brian Eno (‘As if Pianos Grew on Trees’); from the lyricism of Michael Nyman (‘Descent’) to the harsher density of Pauline Oliveros (‘Collapse of Materialists 2’). Forma’s sonic departure on these pieces corresponds to the group’s shift in labels, too, from the dance music-oriented Spectrum Spools and The Bunker to Chicago’s Kranky, an imprint long known for organic American ambient music by latter-day artists like Labradford and Stars of the Lid. And, much like their also-Chicago-based peers Bitchin Bajas, who have made a similar move from German-esque electronic music to a 21st-century spin on American minimalism and free jazz, Forma are ultimately more successful in this new mode.

On ‘Wanderer Imitates a Cloud’ and ‘Improvisation for Flute and Piano’ (deriving an obvious human touch from its string-and-woodwind base), Forma establish a different sense of depth, layering their characteristic amount of rhythms and musical ideas but allowing them, untethered to algorithmic patterns, to move in any number of directions. The artist Robert Beatty visualizes the sensation on Physicalist’s cover: a succession of orbs crosses the depicted scene, and while it looks like they’re coming from the background, their consistent color and perfect arc of motion makes it unclear if they’re all somehow in the foreground, and also if each one is larger than the next, or if they’re the same size and subject to tricks of perspective. The space of the composition—and that of the real world around it—collapse. ‘Collapse of Materialists 2’, a follow-up to the droning introductory track ‘Collapse of Materialists’, sounds, in contrast to its circuit-like precursor, as though it’s coming up from the earth’s core, spreading itself rhizomatically rather than moving cleanly forwards.

Sure enough, Physicalist’s second half, with its comparatively slow, deliberate sweeps of sound, invites such spatial, ‘physical’ consideration. The artistic gestures become much more pronounced; even on the eleven-minute title track, which re-incorporates the drum machines that saturated the album’s first half, the near-aleatory patterns and earthy synthesizer patches imply a group of humans working out newfound sounds and strategies in real time. Unlike the pristine track three, ‘Spin Glass’, ‘Physicalist’ feels unhinged, like it might contain some mistakes—the type of human mistakes that invite a listener in, albeit to sit down rather than dance. Of course, sitting isn’t better than dancing; acoustic isn’t better than electronic; Anglo-American certainly isn’t better than German. But on Physicalist, Forma, mind-bogglingly skilled with their synthesizers, push themselves further and further into new territory—almost literally—as they pare back, slow down, spread out, dig into the (American) soil beneath their feet.