The Joy Formidable
Tom Lundregan, January 22, 2013
Listen: “This Ladder Is Ours”
Wolff’s Law states that human or animal bone will adapt to the pressure placed upon it. Essentially, that a change to the form and function of a bone will cause the bone to remodel itself as stronger or weaker, depending on the change. It seems The Joy Formidable could not resist this play on words for their new album, Wolf’s Law. The album is clearly inspired by the natural world and the band appears to be adapting to the pressures and changes it has undergone over the past two years.
Since their debut album, The Big Roar, two years ago, the Welsh trio has moved from small clubs to opening shows for the Foo Fighters and Muse. The Big Roar, while generally received positively and quite an impressive debut, suffered somewhat from a blurry sense of sameness and a lack of identity. Wolf’s Law does not have these issues as it stays with what worked and attempts to right the wrongs of the debut. Lead singer, guitarist and Joy Formidable’s center of energy, Ritzy Bryan, plays with ferocity, sometimes as if she’s punishing the instrument. On Wolf’s Law, though, her frenetic, loud guitar is no longer threatening to overwhelm her own vocals. Matt Thomas’s drums are heavy and loud, but he’s allowed to slow down here from time to time, taking the lead in changing tempo. Bassist Rhydian Dafydd is a skilled bassist, alternately attacking the rhythm and distorting the rhythm to an organ or string sound.
While there is still a push-and-pull to many of the songs on Wolf’s Law, there is some order to the chaos. What at first listen feels like two different albums is really one complete collection of songs split in half, separated by an interlude. The fuzz is still there, the “big roar” is present throughout, but it’s not overbearing. The first half of the album is like an evolutionary continuation of The Big Roar, especially with tracks like the album opener “This Ladder is Ours” – a radio-friendly, appropriate first single. The more sedate second half is a collection of thoughtful, more insouciant songs.
Many of the songs on Wolf’s Law were conceived while they toured under The Big Roar, but the album was honed and produced in relative isolation in a studio in Maine. The songwriting here reflects that, especially in songs like Cholla, a reference to a desert cactus serving as the yin and yang of a mother’s love – “How do we move on / When nothing is growing / Your hands turned to daggers again.” Cholla is also the first time you get the feel of nature as inspiration since looking at the arresting album cover. The song has an in-your-face feel to it and indicates that perhaps touring with the Foo Fighters may have rubbed off a bit much –the opening notes evoke an upcoming Dave Grohl growl.
“Tendons” is a metaphor of Bryan and Dafydd’s relationship with clear imagery of tendons being pulled and stretched, perhaps to the point of breaking. “Little Blimp” is a bass-heavy, Muse-sounding throwaway. It’s after the jaunty, but somewhat repetitive “Bats,” that the album does something unusual and interesting. The placement of “Silent Treatment” in the middle of the album is no coincidence. It’s an entr’acte performance, a rest between two operatic styles, allowing the listener a breath with a beautiful song that calls to mind Edie Brickell or some other acoustic, late ‘80s folk-rock singer. “Unbeaten / I’ll take the easy sequence / Less people, more freedom / Blood thief / Don’t give myself away” – evocative imagery of a broken relationship with no blustery guitar intrusion.
Break over, the album immediately goes into the “Maw Maw Song,” which swirls continually upward into something sounding like Black Sabbath stuck in a windstorm. There is more natural inspiration in the second half of Wolf’s Law, in “Forest Serenade” and then with the politically-tinged “The Leopard And The Lung.” The latter shows Joy Formidable looking up from their shoes to the world around them. The song is a tribute to the late Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai. Despite the title, the titular Wolf is the metaphor here, perhaps explaining why a title track was recorded and released, but did not make the final album.
Wolf’s Law concludes with “The Turnaround” which has the hallmarks of a true closing song – as with the album opening, the swirling piano and orchestral sound evoke a cinematic soundtrack as we come to the end of the movie. However, at the six minute mark, the song comes back from the dead and reels off a three minute coda. Ultimately, Wolf’s Law only has a few of these surprises, but throughout, there is a natural beauty to the album and a feeling that Joy Formidable is getting stronger with each new change they undertake.