Hymen Records (Y736/CD; Y045/Vinyl), 2003
When Gridlock first appeared on the experimental electronic scene in 1995, no one could predict the status they would eventually earn, nor the music they would produce over their too-short career. Their first release, The Synthetic Form (Pendragon Records, 1997) was a strict goth-industrial affair, with moody keys and snarling vocals, and distinguished from its contemporaries mainly by the collage of intricate broken percussion that fractured the music with razor-edged grace. By the time Mike Wells and Mike Cadoo released Formless, their fourth and final album, their sound had evolved tremendously, but at its core, somehow very little had changed.
Formless is a fitting title in more ways than one. In the two albums released before it – Further (Pendragon, 1999) and Trace (Unit Records, 2001) – Gridlock moved away from the industrial sound of The Synthetic Form and began experimenting with the ambient, glitch, IDM, noise, and technoid genres, reducing the vocal component until it all but vanished, and rejecting convention and structure. Formless fits no genre, and sounds like nothing else; it is powerfully human in spite of its synthetic foundation. It is an experiment that was a resounding success.
What, then, does it sound like? “Pallid” begins with gentle analog synths that follow reverential chords, but the serenity doesn’t last long. After mere moments, a wave of explosive distorted percussion crashes into the foreground, blasting with a chaos that, paradoxically, follows definite pattern and structure. The chaos abruptly vanishes, as the warm ambiance enjoys the spotlight, but we’re smart now; we know the peace won’t last. And it doesn’t. After a brief respite to catch our breath, the barrage continues, leaving us reeling with its impact. But underneath, the reverence is still there, if we pay attention. After a split-second pause, the true identity of the track is suddenly revealed with apocalyptic grace: booming bass chords unfurl as the percussive assault settles into a groove, and the keys ascend to achingly soaring heights. Many consider “Pallid” to be a highlight of Gridlock’s lauded career, and it’s easy to hear why: it carries a deft balance of beauty and chaos – something that has always marked the band’s sound – but it’s perfected here.
And this is only Track One.
The rest of Formless follows a similar template of juxtaposing elements fused together with a master’s craft. The longing echoes of “Return” are opposed by a splintered avalanche that gradually settles into a quiet break backed by vocals contributed by Lynda Mandolyn; one is left imagining what Wells and Cadoo could have done if they’d chosen the downtempo route. The soft menace of “Song23” is spiked with nervous metallic splits before an airy melody appears like a soothing balm. “Chrometaphor” features introspective keyboards broken open by blasts of seismic force. “Re/Module” oozes with organic warmth, while a juddering bass-pound never lets the comfort last too long. “Atomontage” returns to the specter of “Pallid,” beginning with wondrous ambiance that is soon drowned in a cathartic crescendo of manic percussive sequences that rise and fall in powerful exhilarating waves, only to have the beauty re-emerge from the depths like a parting gift. “Done Processing” closes Formless in a subdued manner, drifting along a bed of graceful drones that recede into silence. It’s if Gridlock is rewarding the listener with solace after dizzying turmoil. It’s aptly named as well as aptly placed, too, for as it turned out, “Done Processing” serves as the final track on the band’s final album.
As a Gridlock fan since stumbling upon The Synthetic Form in 1998, it’s painful and magnificent for me that the band called it quits after Formless. I can only dream of what they might have done if they’d continued, but somehow, Wells and Cadoo must have realized they’d achieved what they’d set out to do, and decided to go out at their apex. Both are still active in the scene, but on their own paths. For four unique, groundbreaking, classic albums, however, Gridlock created timeless classics like few have ever done. Formless is a cohesive album with a distinct flow (however broken). It is also a collection of brilliant individual songs, and as always, the tracks are interspersed with brief intervals, as the band has always done. And like most classics, it doesn’t fit into any established category, but created one all for itself.
If I might be allowed to wax profoundly: for me, Gridlock’s music reflects the unpredictable beauty and imminent tragedy of the human condition, and Formless is this philosophy at its peak. The album embodies the joy, sorrow, triumph, disappointment, hope, and morbidity of what it means to be alive. It runs a complex emotional gamut, touching extremes just long enough to remind us of their existence. Formless ends with the promise of peace, a quiet end that, hopefully, each of us will be fortunate enough to encounter, as we finish processing everything we’ve encountered since our first day on the planet.
Formless is not just so-called “modern classical,” but is the closest thing I’ve ever heard to an electronic opera. It’s still as potent, brilliant, and emotionally weighty as the first time I heard it; in fact, I appreciate it more with each listen as I get older. I’m not given to gushing, but this beautiful, tragic masterpiece deserves every bit.