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I first saw The Formal Age in it’s early stages a few years back and really didn’t know what to expect from this five piece which includes Jacob Jonker and Ryan Wiisanen on guitars, Jason Rahman on bass, Phil McGrath on Keyboards and Adam Helbach on drums. I found that the band incorporated everything they had at their disposal well. From vocal harmonies that includes the whole band to the melodic additions of the keys and guitars and meaningful lyrics all laid out in a tasteful yet rocking solid performance, it was easy to get into them.
Over the last three years the band has played the usual venues for an original rock band, but has also expanded its horizons by playing venues like the Kro Bar in Brule, WI, a St. Louis County Health & Human Service Conference and has upcoming gigs including playing at Chester Bowl’s “Music in the Park” summer concert series. It’s fair to say that this band has found a very approachable sound but it stands out from the typical band you’d expect to see at a street dance. Some bands are cover bands that have a few originals, The Formal Age is an original band that has a few covers.
This weekend The Formal Age will be releasing their totally original full length debut album titled “1923-2319.” The album opens up with the track “Death of Empire,” which immediately builds up with an upbeat mix of the keys and lead guitar. It’s easy to discern that the track is going to be a catchy rock song, but once the lyrics start up, it also becomes readily apparent that this is a catchy rock song that delves a little deeper. “I used to walk down by the quarry to watch my father work/an honest man paid for an honest day/he honestly believed in hard work/my father believed in the American way,” goes the first verse. The song gives a rough history of a “company town where the company died.”
The album continues with social and economic statements with the track “Economic Climate Change.” The band makes a point and the lyrics are crystal clear. The songs are orchestrated in a way where the hooks and break downs almost mask what some of the songs are about. I hate trying to narrow down a band’s sound into genres, but it’s somewhere in the realm of synth infused power pop rock with some lyrical depth.
The album breaks away from the social and economic theme and actually starts transitioning in its feel. It grows out into more personal and sometimes abstract reflections. The song, “Snow Covered Roads,” is a cross between a public service announcement and a statement on life.
One song that stands out is the track, “Saint Louis Bay.” While the lyrics remain vague, “we keep the temperature at 68 degrees/that’s what research says is when we’re the most productive.” The catchiness factor of song cannot be denied. Songs like “Every Week” also paint the picture of a relationship that is not particularly ideal.
Compared to how the album starts out, it starts to change more towards the last half. It takes a more of a scientific approach with tracks like “Oppenheimer and the Bomb” and “Carl Sagan’s Last Ride.” The album continues on to become more space themed. Another highlight track is “A Thousand Worlds Home.” It’s one of the “heavier” tracks with hard and fast drums and nice and effective guitar riffs. Tracks such as “Ryan in Space” and “The Last Nice Day on Earth” carry a mix of metaphor and a futuristic view.
This is one of those albums where I could go on and on about everything from the breakdowns to the production to the decisions made on what the keyboards sound like. There is a lot going on in this album and I’ll say that all of the aspects came together masterfully. The band definitely allowed themselves some time to find their sound although they’ve been tight for years at live shows. The little things on this album that accent the overall solidness of the band makes for a listening experience that most people will be able to get behind. When it comes to the recording process there’s Rich Mattson from Sparta Sound engineering and Jake Larson handling the mastering. As far as this area goes, kind of hard to go wrong with those guys.
In the end “1923-2319” is titled appropriately. It could even be loosely called a concept album. It begins with an old time look at America when industry was gaining steam, it then gets more personal as if reflecting on something more in the present and then continues on into the future and space. It ultimately ends with “The Last Nice Day on Earth,” where the refrain goes, “The sky is on fire.” The song is about a ruined planet that we’ve created. The album art is also appropriate as it is more of a steam punk inspired cover done by Stephanie Hooper. The whole CD and listening experience is well put together throughout and is one of the most solid albums of 2014 to come out of the Twin Ports area.