A Formal Horse - A Formal Horse EP Album Cover as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothA Formal Horse come with gusto as well as instrumental proficiency, offering a final product that does not disappoint.  This EP is their debut showing: a small collection of their ambitious work to date.

A Formal Horse EP
Artist: A Formal Horse
Label: independent
Time: 5 tracks / 21:00 minutes

A Formal Horse is a progressive rock quartet based in Southampton, UK.  Formally released June 5th, the A Formal Horse EP is their debut project, produced and mastered by Rob Aubrey (IQ, Big Big Train) at Aubitt Studios.  Though only five tracks long, the EP serves to reveal both the band’s diverse influences and the musical intensity they are capable of producing.  During the recording process, the band’s lineup included Emily Tulloh (vocals), Benjamin Short (guitars), Russell Mann (bass), and Mike Stringfellow (drums).  Tulloh left the band for a teaching occupation in Tanzania just after recording the EP, and has been replaced at the microphone by Francesca Lewis, who joined while A Formal Horse was still in the mixing stage.  From what I’ve read of the band’s recent live performances, Lewis’ vocal work is reminiscent of Annie Haslam’s (Renaissance) coupled with the idiomatic approach employed by some of the singers of the Canterbury era.  On the EP, however, Tulloh’s vocal work is strong, full-throated, and suited to the band’s sound.  I’m curious to hear how Lewis’ addition will alter the nuances of A Formal Horse’s approach to their music.  Nevertheless, this EP is a small collection of their ambitious work to date.

The first track’s eyebrow-raising title, “Sexbooth,” conjures the image of a dirty back alley, from the “cardboard signs [pinned on the] blind man” and “fortnight's wage [in] a tin can” to the “No Smoking” signs (ignored, of course) on the sex booth itself.  The song’s soft introduction belies the rapid flurry of a bass and guitar, moving in tight unison, that immediately shatters the opening ambience.  Parts of this opening instrumental section recall Robert Fripp; others borrow from Carl Baldassarre (Syzygy) and John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra).  At the 3:00-minute mark, the track downshifts, returning to its initial jazzy sentiment.  Mann’s bassline initially foreshadows and then echoes Tulloh’s melody as she begins to sing of finding herself in the wrong part of town, coughing the oxide from her lungs and trying to mind her own business, “reading Ulysses,” while consciously formulating escape plans – just in case things turn ugly.

“Fleeting Silkworm,” the EP’s first instrumental jam, begins with strong, chugging guitar and bass in 4/4, anticipating the first beat of each measure.  It breaks for a Belew-era Crimson-esque riff (see “Frame by Frame”), apportioned between bass and guitar: cyclical series of notes in contrary motion that bring both instruments in and out of unison.  The band returns to the song’s initial grinding pattern for the sudden conclusion – their typical ending device.

After the heavier preceding tracks, “I Lean” takes its time climbing the dynamic ladder.  The varying textures of Tulloh’s vocals and Mann’s bass create brief harmonic contrast, a pleasant melodic sound – yet another compositional device in A Formal Horse’s collective pocket.  The overall sentiment of the track seems to channel the daze of a drunken stupor: “After the pub, I lean,” “Picking a flower, I fell,” “Dropped in the drink, I float.”  The physical instability perhaps lends itself to a deeper, more spiritual sense of unsettlement: “Playing Saint Pete, I deal; Playing Saint Pete, I cheat.”  Toward the track’s conclusion, Tulloh’s “da-da-da’s” follow and harmonize with the melody Short establishes on the guitar, and the song breaks down twice for softer, syncopated stabs, ultimately concluding in the same mode of tentativeness with which it began.

As the final seconds of “I Lean” fade, “Unison 2” enters on Stringfellow’s toms.  This is the EP’s second instrumental as well as its shortest track (1:36).  The track moves succinctly through several guitar-driven melodies in 5/4, supplemented by Mann’s tight bass licks during the funky insert, and is one of the tightest, most technically proficient performances on the album.

The introductory riff of “Rosensage,” a rapidly picked pentatonic lick, recalls Daron Malakian (System of a Down) and Joey Eppard (3).  Mann assumes the riff on the bass, broken down into longer eighth notes, while Short jumps an octave to riff overtop.  Tulloh’s vocal is especially strong on this final track as she sings ambiguously of the “rising fire in a Faustian daze / re-desire the first wave.”  There’s a fear of age and a longing for misplaced youth laced into these lyrics – a sip of middle age’s “dry wine” and a sense of one’s own mortality.  Short’s only full-fledged guitar solo on the album occurs here, overtop Mann’s rolling bassline – an incarnation of the central riff that, when played in cyclical fashion on the bass, draws a certain similarity to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.”  “Rosensage’s” conclusion returns to Short’s rapid tremolo picking before a final refrain, ultimately coming to a sudden, unforeseen halt.

In many ways, A Formal Horse’s material reminds me a lot of The Jelly Jam, as well as District 97 (minus the cellos): heavy at times but predominantly light-hearted, technical but not blistering, repetitive but not recycled.  If you tried Marblewood’s debut, you might hear some similarities to their material as well, though A Formal Horse certainly boasts more concrete orchestrations.  That being said, there’s still a certain level of “jam band” mentality to the band’s approach, though their material is carefully polished and plotted.  The similarity owes itself partly to the guitar and bass pairing: there is no keyboard filling holes or secondary guitar complementing Benjamin Short’s work – excluding a handful of overdubs and doubled parts – so Mann and Short together utilize strong, riff-oriented progressions.  There’s also an uncommon energy as well: a vivid, raw approach in playing style as well as dynamic tenacity.  A Formal Horse come with gusto as well as instrumental proficiency, offering a final product that does not disappoint.

Overall, A Formal Horse is a short but well-representative EP.  Its tracks are structured and technical, adding qualitative depth to what otherwise might be noisy pop.  I’m looking forward to what’s next from this new Southampton act and their energetic approach to modern prog. 

Justin Carlton