“We fall in love with the same old lie.”
We’re in a funny quandary. Mankind’s bullshit detectors have never been so finely tuned, and yet, at the same time, bullshit itself has never been so profuse. Wading through it is how we hit our 10,000 steps a day. Knowledge is now elitism. Feminism is now a t-shirt slogan. Ed Sheeran is now the charts.
Formation have set out to call attention to our current appetite for utter bollocks and to cut through the noise, they’ve opted for bold strokes and provocative statements. Case in point? Well, the album title, the album cover, a large quantity of their lyrics, and on-the-nose track titles like ‘Drugs’, ‘Powerful People’, ‘Gods’, and ‘Buy and Sell’.
The result is that it’s clear they’re taking a stand against the man. But in doing so, they can’t help but conjure cognitive dissonance.The depressing truth is that it’s our default response to question their authenticity, motives, and musically, their ability to deliver on all of the above. In short: are Formation part of the problem, or part of the solution? Thankfully, it’s the latter. But there’s a smidge of the former to muddy the waters.
In a sentence, the band makes percussion-fuelled electro-pop with mantra-like lyrical delivery and a Christopher Walken-pleasing dosage of cowbell. Congrats if you got LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture, or other assorted DFA Records affilitates on your bingo card. From this side of the pond, there’s a touch of Primal Scream, Ian Brown, and Jungle also in the mix.
Where those references have chafed somewhat on previous releases though, the band has begun to wear them with a loose confidence.
‘Buy and Sell’ is driven by the band’s rhythm-section operating at its most kick-ass, veering almost into funk-metal realms as they push Will Ritson’s lead vocals to their limits as he strains to be heard over the top of it.
In counterpoint, ‘Gods’ is a downward shift in gear, adopting a more down-tempo, tropical groove. Ritson matches the overall airiness, his usual intensity taken down a notch and in turn allowing each nuanced texture and layer to be appreciated.
These different weapons in the band’s arsenal prove there’s real depth and variety to their sound, but it’s interesting that it’s ‘A Friend’, a song with its roots back in 2014’s debut white label, which shows off that depth best. In fact, it’s the record’s best track.
A sparse synth and cowbell loop lights the fuse, setting Ritson off for 32 bars, barely pausing for breath as he races through his most emotionally exposed lyrics and vocal delivery on the record.
By the time he’s unravelled the story of a relationship marked by conflict, loss and fractured belief in a frantic 90 seconds of metaphor and reportage, you’re fully on-board, introspection contrasting with musical exuberance to create a rich spectrum of emotions.
A momentary pause and the band launch themselves into two rounds of a punchy, catchy resonant chorus (“And when I’m alone you are my only friend”), finished by extended buoyant instrumental that adds to the overall sensation of enraptured breathlessness.
High order perceptive pop. Do check it out.
Further helping the cause is the production. Look at the Powerful People feels a little like being in a sauna. An underlying feeling of sweaty, anxious pressure carries throughout which - given the band’s intended subject matter - is actually a positive thing, at least in this instance.
The heat comes in ebbs and flows, but never dissipates completely, as studio babble and found-sound recordings fill in where moments of quiet would otherwise sit, keeping the band on simmer until the next hook or breakdown.
In collaboration with some astute track arrangement, this approach allows the band to build momentum throughout the record, which finally releases with the lo-fi euphoria of closing track ‘Ring’, purposefully the only track over five minutes in length.
So, if Formation believe that an album or a dancefloor is as good a place as any to spark a revolution, they have the raw tools to do the job. Where the revolution struggles to fully gain a foothold though, are the lyrics.
“I mean it people, please believe me.” It’s clear that as Ritson states on ‘Pleasure’, they definitely do 'mean it'. He’s a firm believer in the power of music and musicians as individuals to make change and there’s buckets of zeal and conviction in his delivery.
The issue is well, the issues. Capitalism, corruption, and crises of culture are complex, but they’re often presented in overly simplistic terms on Look at the Powerful People. Here’s a selection: “buy and sell, buy and sell, and go to hell”; “he was everything that I despised, trying to cut a deal”; “with no pain, on cocaine, you half-brain”.
All of which harks back to that opening discussion about bullshit and bandwagons. The net impact of these occasionally misfiring political zingers is to undermine the whole. When the objective is to make you feel empowered, they instead leave you feeling a little underwhelmed and pulled out of the moment. All of a sudden the band’s logo – a potentially iconic symbol of broken chains – starts to feels more Anti-Flag than Fugazi. And there’s a world of difference between the two.
Despite their problems though, Formation are undeniably part of the solution.
As they implore us to Look at the Powerful People, Formation have a two-fold objective. On the one hand of course, there’s the powers that be, “stuck in their wonderful world” and in need of getting “what they deserve”. Formation want to give it to them. But they want to give it to them alongside the people themselves, the people who have the “power in their eyes”, not their pockets. It is these the band wants us to really look at, learn from, liberate and be liberated by. It’s a message we all know, but it’s one that needs constant reminders, as now more than ever, we need to speak truth to power, and we want our artists to do it too.
Formation do it with a propulsive intention and force that’s primed for headphones, festivals and rallies alike. So whilst the fire might need more kindling before it can truly become a beacon, the potential and ambition cannot be faulted.
7Christopher T. Sharpe's Score