It’s an odd concoction – and it shouldn’t really work. Phenomenal Handclap Band create music that can only be described as a fusion of ’80s electronica and psychedelic rock. Add a few new wave reminiscent synths and a trace of unorthodox percussion and we’ve summarised PHB. On paper it sounds horrendous, but when giving Form & Control a spin it’s all makes sense.
Odes to ’80s new wave and disco seem to be the latest trend; a welcome one, as outfits such as the Phenomenal Handclap Band are managing to resurrect their sound and create something both polished and contemporary. That being said, how this expansive collection of New Yorkers manage to create an attainable sound with such an eclectic range of influences is bizarre.
Unlike other outfits that have dabbled in disco and synth pop recently, such as Cut Copy and Azari & III, Form & Control takes the notion to a new level – with an unconventionally high guitar presence. It’s certainly most effective when using disco/funk elements as the backbone, as further down the line some tracks on the LP become lost in the midst of a record that doesn’t seem to have any distinguishable musical direction.
To carefully nitpick intricate musical elements from a range of genres and piece them together to create something melodic is an achievement in itself. This being said, the eight-piece are certainly at their best when selecting certain styles for each individual song, rather than combining all these influences in one go to create an end product that can sound overwhelming.
Form & Control opens with an antique vibe, but the latter half of the album sidesteps away from this nostalgia – favouring orchestral guitar leads over the synths at the start of the album. Dancefloor-friendly The Right One radiates joyous disco vibes akin to The Human League and New Order. While later tracks such as Winter Falls and All Clichés demonstrate Phenomenal Handclap Band’s versatility, their songwriting lets them down, and as a result the earlier pop sound is the most captivating formula.
The pulsating, edgy tracks that dominated PHB’s eponymous album of ’09 have been replaced by an electronic counterpart – and while the latter half of the record does act as a reminder that this pioneering outfit can still employ the guitars, none of them offer the foot-stomping infection that tracks such as 15 To 20 offered.
Sometimes more is less, and while PHB’s newfound psychedelic sound is well delivered (their widespread aggregation of musicians helps here) it doesn’t always encompass the same kick as their debut. Evolution is important, though, and a regurgitation of the self-titled record would sound passé and lacklustre. Form & Control is a musical progression which showcases a matured musicianship and confidence in experimentation. Developed instrumental tracks such as Mirrors wouldn’t have been written three years ago, and while it’s not always accessible on first listen, there’s certainly plenty to appreciate.
For the open-minded listener, Form & Control could well be a diverse and absorbing experience. Phenomenal Handclap Band have created an extraordinary record, an accumulation of countless styles and eras of music that at times works impeccably. But too often it just a little too frenzied to adore.