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Reviews: The Forms' Derealization EP (Triple Down, 2011)

The Forms' Derealization EP

When The Forms first announced that their next release would be a remix EP called Derealization, I was cautiously optimistic. The Forms are great; remix albums typically are not. Still, their track record insisted they could pull it off. The group’s two albums—it’s difficult to call them “full-lengths” when Icarus runs 18 minutes and The Forms runs 30—and stray covers (Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” R.E.M.’s “Ignoreland”) are universally excellent. Beyond their intriguing, off-kilter guitar tones and ear-worm vocal hooks, The Forms’ greatest strength is their ability to revisit and revise the past. Icarus applies the editorial acumen of Wire’s Pink Flag to mid 1990s emo like Sunny Day Real Estate, fragmenting the song structures without losing sight of the emotional charge. The Forms, an album that gets better with every spin, envisions an alternate universe of 1990s indie/emo/math-rock where groups like Polvo could really sing, placing the vocals on top of the mix instead of burying them beneath the shifting guitar patterns. Changing the vocal intonation of and adding a droning, post-punk bass line to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” cleansed decades of its brain-numbing melody. With only an hour of widely available music to date, I was thrilled to hear anything new from the Forms, but opting for a remix EP—and a much delayed one at that—over their first album since 2007 seemed strange.

I’d hoped to pick up a physical copy of Derealization when I saw The Forms play a snow-sabotaged set at T.T. the Bear’s on December 28, only to learn that it wouldn’t be available until February. Nevertheless, I gained a much clearer idea of what “remix” means to the Forms.

I expected to see a four-piece rock band, but I’d missed the announcement that The Forms had been pared down to a two-piece. Alex Tween and Matt Walsh set up their keyboards/midi controllers first, with only Walsh having guitars in tow. They opened with an accordion and steel drum rendition of “Knowledge in Hand,” followed it with a synthesizer and miniature guitar reimagining of “Focus,” then turned “Red Gun” into electro-pop. I knew the melodies and the lyrics, but each had been pushed and pulled to fit their new arrangements, none of which sounded remotely like Sunny Day Real Estate or Polvo. Every song added some new element to the mix—’80s drum pads, dexterous guitar riffs, falsetto vocal runs—and by the end of the set, I got it. The band had been remixed. No wonder why Derealization took so long.

That’s the difference between Derealization and the hit-and-mostly-miss remix compilations I have from other rock bands (Mogwai, Swirlies, Dismemberment Plan, Bloc Party, Isis, Explosions in the Sky, Minus the Bear, etc.): The Forms are actively working with these versions. Remix albums are closed circuits. Groups send their material out to remixers, who rearrange it, add their own touches, and generally apply their own aesthetic to it. Once these remixes have been collected, the respective aesthetics rub against each other awkwardly. Some work, some don’t. But even in the case of a truly successful remix—Justin Broadrick’s take on Pelican’s “Angel Tears,” Kevin Shields’ explosion of “Mogwai Fear Satan”—it’s a static object upon release. Mogwai and Pelican haven’t performed those versions live. The very thought of that—“We’ve been learning how to play this remix of our song and rehearsing it a lot”—sounds comical. Remixes aren’t usually written or treated like original songs.

Then again, Derealization isn’t a traditional remix album. It may have started out as one, but Tween and Walsh did the rearrangements, not outside contractors. Collaborators color the songs, but don’t fully dictate the sound. Derealization is halfway between a remix album and a sharp directional turn, like Bob Mould’s embrace of electronic music on Modulate (except, you know, good). These songs are built on old material, but they stand on their own as new compositions. Guest vocalists The National’s Matt Berninger, Pattern Is Movement’s Andrew Thiboldeaux, and (especially) Shudder to Think’s Craig Wedren excel with The Forms’ material. Tween’s vocals in turn have improved to better fit the pop nature of the new versions. New instrumental choices like strings, acoustic guitar, electronic programming, synth bass, and drum machines never seem out of place. The switch from rock to pop as the dominant genre tag seems all too easy, especially on the Wedren-fronted highlight “Finally.” If only all “remix” albums went through this ringer.

And the remixing—in terms of the band perspective—isn’t over. After seeing The Forms again last night (opening for the Dismemberment Plan), I was amazed by how different the songs are in the live setting: much more electronic, much more dance-oriented. It’s a jarring flip from anyone solely familiar with The Forms’ past work, but Derealization acts as a buffer between the eras. It’s also encouraging that The Forms played at least three new songs, suggesting that a new release might not be four years away.

Derealization is getting a CDEP pressing, but I recommend the stark collision of past and present on the upcoming LP pressing of Derealization, which puts the remix EP on one side and Icarus on the flip. It makes logistical sense—Icarus hits vinyl for the first time—but it also showcases two vastly different eras of the band in the same place. Maybe someday the rock band incarnation of The Forms will open for the electro-pop version.