Formula 5 – Edging on Catastrophe [Album Review]

The term “Classic Rock” is a Postmodern term. It presupposes an end to a certain era of rock music, looking back from a distance, as if that historical wave has crested and dissipated. When Wolfmother’s self-titled debut was released, Classic Rock was the term widely used to classify it. No one, including the band, took any issue with the label, as the music had been made with exactly that intention and with reverence for those records. It sounded exactly like Classic Rock; it was new iteration of a familiar form. After a style of music has come to fruition and is widely known and celebrated, does it then become a tradition? As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, is it such a stretch to make the claim that “Classic Jam” might now be considered a genre?

Your average festival attendee could most likely recite the various generations of Jam Bands as if they were patriarchs from the Book of Genesis: “The Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers begat Phish and Widespread Panic who begat String Cheese Incident and the Disco Biscuits..” etc. Distilling this lineage into a single aesthetic is a noble pursuit, and Formula 5 may have achieved that very thing on their latest release, Edging On Catastrophe.

The album’s first track “Perch Above The Earth” sets the tone for the rest of the album to come, starting with a mid tempo rock riff that slips in and out of a spacey half-time feel where the jam eventually settles in. Mike McDonald’s mix of ambient organ and textural synthesizers mix with pitched guitar delay loops over a repeating drum and bass pattern before breaking into a series of harmonized vignettes that seriously evoke that Vermont quartet.  The next few tracks follow suit, wearing their influences proudly on their sleeves and happily genre hopping from college rock to bluegrass.

This kind of variety, which audiences have come to expect from the artists in their scene, is appreciated by Keyboardist/composer McDonald, “I think our influences were all over the map on this record. We incorporated elements of funk, rock, reggae, bluegrass, folk, and electronic music…We relate very closely to some of the modern ‘jam’ bands like Phish, moe., and Umphrey’s McGee and certainly draw influence from them and how they are able to span so many different musical genres.”

Authenticity is the most common casualty when variety is the aim, but in strict terms, that is not what happens on “Catastrophe.” Instead, the multiplicity seems to be coming from an existing tradition; Formula 5 is recreating the approximations one is accustomed to hearing within this framework.  All the hallmarks of “Classic Jam” are right there. With the precise, limber execution by guitarist Joe Davis and the steady, earthy grooves of Greg Marek, they are standing on solid ground when they emulate the elder statesmen in the jam world.

“The Ride” seems to straddle the world between Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Steely Dan, fusing ‘jamtronica’ with a smooth seventies rock veneer. “Rising Tide” adds the requisite reggae groove track while “Epiphany” delivers a feel good disco-funk jaunt before dropping back into jam-rock territory. The end of the album culminates in a three song suite that pays homage to Brit prog-rock precursors Yes and Genesis in the centerpiece “Nu-Gen.”

Studio recordings have been the bugaboo of many a Jamband, but Formula 5 appears to have approached this album with fidelity as the aim rather than quantized perfection. “Most people in this day in age are very calculated and often worry constantly about things they may or may not be able to control,” Says McDonald, “but we became fascinated [embracing] the opposite.” What’s more authentic than that?

Formula 5 is coming off a successful run of Northeast shows culminating with a blow out show at Brooklyn Bowl featuring sit-ins from Elise Stone and Natalie Cressman (Trey Anastasio Band). They are releasing a new live album on April 13 entitled Live Five, Vol. 1.

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