The premise of A Formal Horse is simple: four sharp, inventive musicians with backgrounds in technical music go completely against the grain of polish and control in favour of viscerality and animalistic vigour. They have the brains to pull off twisting, Robert Fripp-channelling reveries and can turn mathematical equations into convincing musical passages, but the Southampton quartet have plenty of brawn too. They play with brute force and intelligence for, as guitarist Benjamin Short admits, “We’re all smelly, longhaired rockers at heart.”
Three years after the release of their self‑titled debut EP, much has changed within their ranks. Members have come and gone – a different singer leads the band on each of their three EPs – and time has seen them grow as musicians. Indeed, while the electrifying juxtaposition of their core sound – prog rock dexterity played with wild abandon – has remained a constant, they’ve learnt how best to balance their instrumental indulgences with something raw, exciting and tangible.
“Our progressive elements have become secondary,” reveals bassist Russell Mann. “The way our songs are written, someone will have a riff or a chord sequence and we’ll jam it out in the studio. Then, gradually, from there we’ll add more time signatures and unusual harmonic developments. I think because we’re a four-piece – a power trio with a vocalist and no keyboards – that format lends itself to that jam style of songwriting a lot more.”
Jams may help lay down a song’s incendiary foundation, but from there on out the band have to slap on their thinking caps to turn the grit into something more than just that. Mann, however, admits they haven’t always got the balance right.
“Before [latest release] Made In Chelsea we had two EPs that were quite different, which we used to test the water. I don’t think we got the balance right with either of them. But with Made In Chelsea we didn’t want to compromise our sound and what makes it A Formal Horse, and we always have our audience in mind and that goes beyond the prog niche.
“When I first met Ben, prog was the common ground between us, but we gradually found out we were both into grunge and even pop acts like Lana Del Rey. It’s not just progressive rock that has an influence on us.”
Within their sound, the band, completed by drummer Mike Stringfellow and new vocalist Hayley McDonnell, often find many pockets of space opening up like the jaws of a basking shark. These are spaces desperate to be explored by each member, which they duly do with fiery aplomb.
“This band started out as a university project with Ben when we were studying at Southampton University,” says Mann. “Back then I didn’t expect to be taking the lead at all, but there’s the space to do it and it brings my jazz influence in. In A Formal Horse the rhythm section often takes it in turns to take the lead, not just the guitar.”
With Made In Chelsea, however, as much as their musicianship has been sharpened and their use of the avant-garde has become more concise, there’s no doubting that Hayley McDonnell is the final piece of the puzzle.
“I’ve never met someone with as big a range as Hayley,” Mann smiles. “We were open to having someone that didn’t necessarily sound like the first two singers we had because, historically, we’ve always written songs to suit the vocalist and their strengths, but we were really lucky to find Hayley. She’s interpreted the songs and made them her own and while she has her own, absolutely amazing, unique voice, she’s not too dissimilar from the singers on the first two records.”
So, how did they meet? “I was already aware of their music as I’d seen them play a few times at [Southampton venue] The Talking Heads, where I work,” McDonnell says. “We got to know each other some more and then when their singer had to pull out of some shows, they asked me to step in and I enjoyed it.”
“All of the time signature stuff just clicked with her,” Mann says. “She sounded great and so having her front the band was a natural progression, really. With Hayley’s classical training as well as her folk and rock background, it gives us a lot of different styles to build on and play with. While we have a stripped-back set-up, it’s great to have a singer who has such a big range. Perhaps that’s why Made In Chelsea is such a dynamic record.”
“It’s nice to be able to use all my different voices, from the folky and the rocky stuff to the classical stuff too,” adds McDonnell. “There’s so much stuff that requires a completely different voice.”
‘Dynamic’ is the perfect word to define Made In Chelsea and the band that birthed it. Across each song there are so many intricate and enthralling details to soak up, which unite to colour the bigger picture of the record as a whole. On Apocalypse in 15⁄8, Mann’s aggressive, attacking bass makes a foray before being wrung out, there’s Alex Lifeson-inspired guitar work and the frantic, incessant pulse of Stringfellow’s snare drum. Then comes McDonnell’s soaring falsetto. A whirlwind of abrasiveness and eccentricity, they playfully wink at a whole host of their influences, from Genesis and Muse to King Crimson and beyond. And that’s just one song.
Their dynamism is special and with McDonnell, they’ve hit the sweet spot.
Made In Chelsea is out now and is self-released. See www.aformalhorse.com for details.
A Formal Horse - Made In Chelsea album review