Compared to most early 21st century groups making music on analog synthesizers and taking inspiration from the '70s and '80s pioneers of electronic music, Brooklyn trio Forma have always made some of the warmest, most inviting music. They have their darker, more sinister moments, particularly on their second album, Off/On (2012), but most of their recordings don't sound like they're trying to replicate the mood of a Dario Argento film. Instead, they have a rolling, pastoral sound in line with Cluster at their most tuneful and accessible, or Neu! minus guitars and acoustic drums. They also place a significant emphasis on rhythm, with George Bennett's electronic beats guiding the songs but never overpowering them or getting too flashy. Founded in 2010 by Mark Dwinell, Sophie Lam, and Bennett, the group released its first two albums on Spectrum Spools (the Editions Mego imprint curated by John Elliott of Emeralds, another American synth trio with similar influences) before Lam was replaced by John Also Bennett of Seabat. Forma's 2014 EP, Cool Haptics, was released by the label of long-running Brooklyn club night The Bunker New York, and it made the connection between the band's hypnotic, improvisatory sound and the dancefloor, with two lengthy tracks of lush ambient techno. Physicalist is Forma's third album and first for ambient/post-rock institution Kranky, and it finds them tightening their focus further without sounding rigidly mechanical. The average track time here is about six minutes, giving them enough time to establish a pleasant mood and progress for a bit without meandering or getting too repetitive. Forma seem like a group that will always base their music on spontaneous creation, but while their first two full-lengths featured numeric track titles reflecting which jam sessions the pieces were recorded during, Physicalist is far more conceptual, relating to the belief that everything is created from physical interactions. Sure, there are precise motorik rhythms and synth arpeggios here, but they're fluid and sound alive rather than merely programmed and looped indefinitely. The album's first half is more playful and rhythmic, generally tending to shimmering melodies and propulsive beats. Forma drift further out of orbit on much of Physicalist's second half, exhibiting their modern classical influences more than ever before. This is the group's first recording to feature acoustic instruments, and pieces like the lovely "As If Pianos Grew on Trees" pay homage to composers such as Harold Budd. Both halves of the album contain different versions of "Collapse of Materialists," a serene but slightly turbulent drone. After the blissful 11-minute title track, the album ends with the woozy, new agey "Improvisation for Flute and Piano." Easily Forma's most ambitious work to date, Physicalist is a winning expedition.
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AllMusic Review by Paul Simpson