'Stravinsky saved from a skip’ could easily pass as a lyric from A Formal Horse’s powerful 2019 debut album, Here Comes A Man From The Council With A Flamethrower, but is, in fact, a scene from guitarist Ben Short’s schooldays. Chancing upon an LP of Stravinsky’s The Firebird in a box destined for the skip, Short recalls rescuing the album and once home found himself revelling in the rich harmonies and its complex melange of tonal colours.
“This was in the 90s when I was in my teens. It opened my ears to 20th-century classical music. From that, I realised that this music is what influenced the stuff I’d been listening to, such as Pink Floyd, Genesis and so on.” Nor was the fact that Yes deployed the finale of The Firebird as their grand entrance music lost on him. “That freak encounter was part of the steamroller effect that got me into what I’ve been interested in for the last 20 years.”
That interest has been made manifest in a band whose bracing mix of sharp, spiky riffs, abrupt time and timbre gear-shifts topped with vocals whose pristine articulation cuts through the power-trio dynamics with a side portion of Canterbury-esque whimsy has been winning fans since its formation in Southampton in 2013. While some groups have a penchant for getting out as much material as they can, A Formal Horse have been taking things not so much at a gallop but more of a canter. Their discography may be modest in appearance: three short EPs over a five-year period and only now, a full-length album, but it’s the quality that counts.
“We put out three EPs in that time mostly because being human beings with jobs and family making 20 minutes of music is pretty easy,” explains Short. “Making 45 minutes of music is not pretty easy, which is probably reflected in the fact that it’s taken well over two years to put the album together.”
Working with engineer and producer Rob Aubrey, whose credits over the years include Jadis, John Wetton and Geoff Downes’ Icon, and Big Big Train, the band have developed a quirky yet impactful sound that somehow manages to be both challenging and deceptively accessible.
Their writing has evolved over the years too, says Short, with everything aiming for more concision than when they first started out. That urgent, hurtling energy is expertly handled and guided to its target without any waste, mess or fuss. Highly focused, they execute what others would regard as difficult musical manoeuvres with an insouciant disregard for their awe-inducing fireworks that burst open in their wake.
“The songs tend to be relatively short with the rambly bits split off on their own,” he explains, “which hopefully helps the record hum along at a better rate rather than getting bogged down on anything too long.” Not that such brevity has led to any diminution to the scope and scale of what the band delivers. Each track is honed and sharpened to a fine point for maximum impact, it’s the result of a lot of sifting as they work through the writing process, another reason for them taking their time. Remotely sharing files, ideas bounce backwards and forwards between the other members of the band: bassist Russell Mann, drummer, Mike Stringfellow, and vocalist Hayley McDonnell. “If they stop bouncing back and forth, it means one of two things: either we’ve given up on them because they are crap and nobody wants to go back and look at it again or it means that it’s finished.”
There’s something very disconcerting about the face that stares out at you from the cover of Here Comes A Man From The Council With A Flamethrower. Created by Julia Soboleva, also responsible for the artwork on their last EPs, and like those more famous enigmatic visages adorning Zappa’s Hot Rats or King Crimson’s In The Court of The Crimson King, it possesses a penetrating intensity; a sense of there having been some interrupted furtive movement, the subject having been caught in the act of doing something unsavoury and not entirely fit for publication in a family periodical such as Prog. Ben Short scoffs at any direct comparisons to those covers from the 1960s but agrees there’s nothing accidental whatsoever about the choice of such a striking image to house their first full-length release.
“We talked a lot about covers and getting the design right and we picked something, not accidentally, that looks really good as a small thumbnail on things like Spotify and Apple Music. You want something that’s effective in that sense but which also looks good on a CD or vinyl. There’s so much subtext in that picture, without a doubt, and I love the ambiguity of it.”
That love of the opaque and the enigmatic finds expression in the band’s lyrics. Penned by Short and beautifully articulated by Hayley McDonnell’s near-operatic vocals that either cleave or coax their way through the power-trio barrage of the Horse at full pelt. They variously hint at some unspecified deviation, the subversion of once-safe assumptions, or of bridges being burnt though there’s no clear evidence as to who might have built or even crossed them in the first place. Short stoutly defends his embrace of the obscure in his wordplay, arguing that it’s better for listeners to make up their own sense of meaning to what they hear.
“The main thing is to be compassionate and engage with people in a loving way. Yet somehow I write lyrics that point out very strange, and often the worst, things in people,” he says with a laugh, before revealing that A Formal Horse are already hard at work on the next album. Though pleased at the positive reception to their debut, they’ve definitely got the bit between their teeth. “Anybody who’s worth anything is constantly moving, aiming to do the next thing.”
This article originally appeared in Prog 106.