Spectrum Spools is a vinyl-only electronic music imprint curated by John Elliott of Emeralds and distributed by Editions Mego, the seminal Austrian label behind two great Emeralds albums, Does It Look Like I’m Here? and What Happened, as well as fellow synth-nostalgicist Oneohtrix Point Never’s Returnal. After an excellent start earlier this year with releases by Bee Mask and Fabric, Elliott’s label has unveiled release number three, a self-titled album by FORMA, a trio consisting of Mark Dwinell and Sophie Lam on synthesizers and George Bennett on drum machines. The group initially released its music via cassette, but the vinyl release adds a certain polish both in presentation and mastering.
Like much of the minimal/vintage synth music around at the moment, these tracks (all with titles like “FORMA237A” and “FORMA89”) hark back to the good old days of Cluster, Kraftwerk, and Popol Vuh, making the record’s journey through the D&M cutting plant in Berlin all the more resonant. So we’re treated to a mixture of gently rippling arpeggios and slow synth washes that evoke memoryscapes and that strangely pastoral glow that emanated from so much Deutsche Elektronische Musik. As futuristic as that music was, there remained a sense of yearning, a nostalgia for something unnamed: the future, perhaps, but just as probable some long lost bond with the cosmos that could have been experienced in any era of the human story. More noticeable, arguably, in the commune-dwelling likes of Amon Düül and Kluster/Harmonia, that yearning could also be discerned in Kraftwerk’s endless autobahns.
It is this yearning for the future/past of the cosmos that is so skilfully channeled by the current crop of synthonauts. For all the cables and keys and knobs and machines that anchor the source of their music to earth, the music of Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never and Dolphins Into The Future finds its true home in spaces of the mind, such as John Elliott’s “imaginary softwoods,” Daniel Lopatin’s “zones without people,” and Lieven Martens’s dolphin-filled oceans. So too with FORMA, whose electro-pastoral dialectic is played out nicely on the two sides of the record sleeve: on one side, that odd list of password-like song titles and tech-y instrument-listing (Roland RS-09, Crumar DS-2, Alesis HR-16B, etc.); on the other, a picture of a canyon floor in Arizona.
But memoryscapes require work. Even with the aid of marvellous machines, they don’t just come into being. They need building, and here FORMA (aptly named, in this sense) are very able workers, sculpting blocks of sound that stand the test of several listenings. There are solid structures to these pieces, the result of audio engineers who know how to combine materials. But there’s an elegance, too, in the manner in which lines pick up from each other, rhythms are doubled or halved, textures complement each other.
A warm wetness pervades much of the album (again, that sense of nature, of clay and soil and rivers; the motorik heartbeat of the earth; the ether’s pulse). But there is also a cold dampness, a chill that comes from the creeping-in of dissonance, the foreboding of sinister resonances around the corner. Roland TR-707 and its smaller sibling Alesis send out assertive drum pad pulses one minute, then stutter and fall the next. An arpeggio is left dangling in the breeze at the mercy of wild beats, while the sound of wind echoes down the corridors of “FORMA230.” The sense of abandonment, of nature’s isolation, is even stronger on the closing “FORMA237B,” where droning synths drag slavishly along to a dominant drumbeat, seemingly wishing, but not being able, to cease their programmed act. It’s a software slump reminiscent of Grandaddy’s “Broken Household Appliance National Forest” or the “cybernetic meadow” that Richard Brautigan dreamed of in his poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.”
Such are the connections evoked by this synth-esia. Rather than standing in awe of the loving grace of machines, perhaps we should be wondering what happens to our brains once they get sucked into Roland’s world. Is the sonic bliss of this retro-balm rotting our critical faculties, transMoogrifying us into blabbering idiots, too plugged-in to care anymore? Such responses will no doubt be fired at the current synthonauts and, in some cases, rightly so. But the Spectrum Spools aesthetic is an important reflection of how one set of nerdy, tech-obsessed people are dealing with age-old human/machine, composer/cosmos relationships in the present day and having a very cool time doing so. Spectrum Spools’ products, in their appeal to all the senses, are also very beautiful.