Super Forma is French multi-instrumentalist Axel Monneau’s third release under the Sibelius moniker (the con extends to the liner notes, which are written in Portuguese) and follows a self-titled album and an EP of the kind of home-recorded folk music that suggests hundreds of hours spent listening to scratched copies of Fairport Convention or Tyrannosaurus Rex LPs. Although enjoyable on their own terms, neither was especially distinctive nor did they hint at the kaleidoscopic sound that surfaces on Super Forma.
The album opens with the brief “Sonho de Songes”, where thick waves of swirling feedback and strings dissolve into a chorus of wordless harmonies, as if My Bloody Valentine or the Boo Radleys travelled back in time to share a stage with the Beach Boys. This gives way to the twangy guitar riff that introduces the deceptively sunny psych-pop of “Desintegraçao” (“Disintegrate us/Disintegrate us all/That’s all/I understand”), one of Super Forma’s most memorable songs. In less skilled hands, a song like “Desintegraçao” might collapse under the weight of its busy arrangement (a harpsichord, backwards guitars, horns and sharp acoustic guitar strums – more Bowie’s “Space Oddity” than Mumford & Sons – all show up in the surprisingly clear mix), but Sibelius makes it work thanks to an uncanny grasp of melody and the pleasure he appears to take in letting songs unfold in unexpected directions. “Asteroids”, the jittery rocker that follows, wouldn’t sound out place on a Pebbles compilation, its surf guitars, vintage organ and garage drums all firmly rooted in the sounds of the mid-1960s.
It would be easy to peg this as the work just another pop revivalist who worships at the Church of Wilson – on “Bells”, lyrics such as “I hear a symphony/And sing a nursery rhyme” evoke the gentle naiveté of a reclusive Brian circa Friends as much as Robert Wyatt’s off-kilter solo work – but Super Forma quickly takes a turn towards a decidedly darker stream of psychedelia with the six minutes of “Spinning Round”. Here, the surf riffs and Beatles harmonies are replaced by spacier and more exotic sounds (including effects-laden drums and a brief oud solo), while Sibelius’s words get hazier, more cryptic and somewhat self-consciously impressionistic (“My favorite colors are no longer there/Goodbye, farewell”). On “Super Data”, he alternates between a heavy, insistent guitar riff and delicate keyboard-based interludes, successfully mashing up Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd and the retro-futuristic analogue sounds of fellow countrymen Air.
“Archipel Celesta” and “Cafuron”, two tracks linked by the sound of a tape recorder, find Sibelius pulling out all the stops. The first shuffles matter-of-factly through sections of unintelligible underwater vocals and string arpeggios set to a mechanical krautrock beat, before a burst of Frippertronics and the gradual speeding up of the tempo bring the song to the verge of collapse; then, the recording abruptly cuts off. When the tape starts rolling again, quiet fingerpicking is quickly replaced by foreboding, rumbling synths, hissing strings – perhaps a saw – and more mind-bending guitars that create some of the album’s most suffocating moments. After this, the comparatively short instrumental “Huong” feels like a bit of a throwaway, but the peaceful relief it provides after that strange trip inside Sibelius’s mind and back is more than welcome.
That such a sequence would lead into Super Forma’s catchiest, most contemporary song – and standout single – seems almost perverse. And yet, the airy balearic pop of “Good Remake”, which closes the album, succeeds in updating Sagittarius’s “My World Fell Down” for the 21st century where MGMT failed on 2010’s Congratulations and confirms the arrival of a supremely talented pop craftsman (those who purchase Super Forma from the label will also receive “Burundi”, 14 minutes of hypnotic rhythms and musique concrète that meld the avant-garde psych folk of Animal Collective and the Beta Band with Damon Albarn’s African experiments).
Considering the staggering depth of the arrangements, the lengthy songs that avoid simple verse-chorus-verse structures and lyrics that are often more evocative than truly meaningful, it is truly a testament to Sibelius’s considerable gifts that Super Forma never sounds overproduced or forced, and remains immediately accessible, compulsively listenable and downright addictive. An irresistible, indispensable purchase for fans of classic 1960s psychedelia, experimental pop and lush, ornate productions, Super Forma is probably my favorite album of the first half of 2013.
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