According to Brooklyn kosmische trio Forma, whose newest album Physicalist comes titled after an ontological field of thought concerned with the “physical” nature of all things in existence, the concept of a fully improvised, shape-shifting musical approach is a loaded and perhaps misleading endeavor. “In physicalism, everything is part of an eternal causal chain, where no room exists for human will or choice,” percussionist George Bennett explained in a recent AdHoc interview. John Also Bennett, the newest member of the band, added, “A physicalist might say theoretically that the musical result of our collaboration can be predicted based on the current material state of the surrounding universe. Does this make the music any less beautiful? Who’s to say?”
It seems especially prescient to address such concepts of predeterminism when listening to Physicalist, an album that is both of its time and deeply entrenched in the sounds of electronic music’s past. Forma’s approach, while very spaced out, exists firmly in the structures of krautrock, a school that over time has gone from being one of rock music’s most abstract, forward-leaning doctrines to one of its safest and most conservative. What once were the genuine sounds of “Future Days” are now often mere shorthand for a certain type of restrained, “tasteful” jam band mentality, as reliably faithful to its motorik beats as it is refusing to ever let its improvisation fall too wildly out of its own hands.
Physicalist willfully tackles this mode throughout its runtime, with Forma employing a steady arsenal of drum machines, arpeggiators, and simmering analog synthesizers. Even as it clocks in at a hefty 68 minutes, it’s about as easy to listen to as electronic music gets, motoring along on steady Autobahn-stye grooves and pristine, airy new-age meditations. It’s an enjoyable state to experience; Forma prove themselves highly adept at churning out crisp, expansive chapters of circular psychedelia. But amid all the bliss, there’s an apparent lack of deeper drive to these songs. It’s easy to become swept away in the general current of Physicalist’s soothing pathways, with tracks seemingly bleeding into one another as the album reaches its dewier, dronier second half. But where these tunnels actually lead remains unclear.
The album ends on the aptly titled “Improvisation for Flute and Piano,” a peaceful bit of acoustic reverie that would fit comfortably into any day spa’s Spotify playlist, and in its simplicity it is arguably Physicalist’s strongest moment. There are other sections that stand out as well (the ambiguous and upbeat title track, the plaintive and decaying “Collapse of Materialists 2”), but “Improvisation for Flute and Piano” feels refreshing for its acceptance of old-fashioned methods — it is the only track that truly accomplishes the relaxed ambitions of this music without muddying it in borrowed futurism. As Bennett described in his reflections on physicalism’s implications, Physicalist is indeed a luscious, bubbly record to behold; just don’t expect its preordained patterns to hold many surprises.