The mighty Welsh trio The Joy Formidable (Ritzy Bryan, Matt Thomas, Rhydian Dafydd) are a power trio insofar as Usain Bolt can be tagged a mere sprinter. What the parties have most in common is the grandeur at the heart of setting their sights on wowing Olympiad-sized masses with dizzying dominance. On sophomore album, Wolf’s Law, the thunderous rockers capitalize on so much of what made their debut, The Big Roar, live up to its grandiose name with a relentless cavalcade of deafening noise and harmonies, but the rewards too often don’t outlive the running time of most songs.
The Big Roar highlights like the ultra-combustible back half of “Whirring,” “Austere” with its unconventional of squawks circling like vultures over that incomparable bass groove, and the stratospheric pull of “A Heavy Abacus” held up under the volatility over dozens of listens and pulled off a grand feat of making The Big Roar seem maybe more inventive that it had a right to be. It was an album out to make the statement that there’s a new sheriff in town when it comes to the loudest damn rock and roll around. Maybe there was more than meets the eye in The Joy Formidable’s aspirations, but is there really anything inherently wrong with a talented rock band shooting to be the loudest on the planet? Without a doubt, there are many who will find fault with such a goal, but, as the cliché goes, flaunt it if you’ve got it.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be all that revelatory The Joy Formidable decided to follow a mind-melting album called The Big Roar with one titled Wolf’s Law. As stated in Mosby’s Dictionary of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Wolff’s Law is “a law according to which biologic systems such as hard and soft tissues become distorted in direct correlation to the amount of stress imposed upon them.” Essentially, as outside stressors affect the animal, the bones and skeleton of the animal distorts and adapts to withstand the pressure. Lyrically, the album alludes to the state of Mother Nature as it withstands the human pillaging while relationships endure similar fates, which were themes evoked in the band’s stunning video for the title track. Knowing the band recorded and self-produced Wolf’s Law in a cabin-studio in the serene wilderness of Sebago Lake outside of Portland, Maine, such themes gains clarity. On the other hand, if you choose to view the album with Wolff’s Law in mind, it’s not inconceivable to view The Joy Formidable’s sophomore album as a collection of songs that impose the maximum amount of aural stress on the bones of song to see if the skeletons of the songs will in fact distort with the pressure. What the band has done over the course of 12 songs with few exceptions (“Silent Treatment” and “The Turnaround”) on Wolf’s Law is trump The Big Roar in terms of noise and stake their claim for loudest band in the world while also softening the edges with schmaltzy strings and melodramatic choruses in a play for mass appeal to fill Olympic-sized stadiums.
The million dollar question is: Do The Joy Formidable pull it off? Yes and no. If you are a fan entirely content with wanting little more than to adore a band that mostly seeks to be the most deafening trio in the world, then songs like lead singles “This Ladder Is Ours” and “Cholla” should be more than satisfying. Where you will find particular enjoyment though is in the blistering extended finales and solos in the stretch of rip-roaring anthems “Tendons,” “Little Blimp,” and “Bat.” Considering you get one or two sexily mutant bass grooves and Thomas’s relentless pummeling and kickdrum pounding behind the kit along with the band’s trademark quiet-loud dynamics should sit well with you. When the truly loud sections of the quiet-loud dynamics chime in, the skyrocketing decibel measure signals entire foundations combusting one after another.
Such fans have little concern for the blogs and popular consensus who say guitar rock has been failing for years to choke down its own death rattles. Those all-knowing outlets say guitar rock is irrelevant and who’s louder than who means zilch, considering not a damn person is listening to or buying the music anyway. If you’re the kind of person who’d spit on that sentiment upon seeing it on the street, then a song like The Joy Formidable’s 7-minute-long “Maw Maw Song” may become your default rock jam for months to come. Is it pure nonsense? You’re damn right it is. The hook is little more than “maw maw maw maw maw maw maw maw maw” in a key Atlanta Braves fans know intimately well as their tomahawk chop rally jam. Is it solid though? You’re damn right it is. The song terrorizes speakers with a 110-second solo that brings air raid sirens to visceral life for God’s sake. That it follows the album’s most elegant and startlingly fragile tune, “Silent Treatment,” with its acoustic strumming, Ritzy’s vulnerable delivery, and lyrics steeped in domestic heartache, makes the juxtaposition all the more jarring.
On Wolf’s Law, The Joy Formidable bring plenty of new flourishes to the proceedings, even while in pursuit of their loudness crown. The swooning strings that unveil the opening 40 seconds of “This Ladder Is Ours” before the album truly blasts off en route to the sound barrier should provide sufficient foreshadowing. String sections and piano tinkling show up time and again in intros, codas and within the modest lulls of the band’s quiet-loud dynamics as listeners brace for the tension of imminent detonation, but such moments fail to make much of a lasting impact amidst the forthcoming squall of fuzz-blasted riffs and brutally tight rhythm section, all cranked to 11. As mentioned before, “Silent Treatment” provides a respite at the midway point, and it’s sure to be the highlight of Wolf’s Law for The Joy Formidable detractors. The band also pumps the brakes and cues the strings for the orchestral drama of album closer “The Turnaround.” It’s a curious inclusion considering The Joy Formidable have never given us anything like it. Ritzy’s stunning vocals carry lines like “The best part is over and nothing I’m feeling is new,” while a full orchestra chimes in to set the stage for regal melancholy. “The Turnaround” is a thing of beauty but a perplexing source of frustration, given the song sounds like it blew in from an entirely different album.
The true frustration of Wolf’s Law lies in inhabiting the world of an extremely talented band who are vying to rise to ambitious heights within their genre, only to find the experience leaves you with little to carry with you once the moment has passed. Song after song, The Joy Formidable envelop you in a raging wall of often-terrific noise flanked by occasionally beautiful harmonies and arrangements, but too often they get your head banging and heart pumping harder only to wash over you and leave you mostly unaffected once the song ends. Even with all of the guitar glory, throbbing kickdrums, tight grooves and lush new orchestrations, you’re left with the sense something is regrettably absent for much of Wolf’s Law. What that something may be – whether it’s a chorus with the ability to get wedged in your brain, more transparent prose in the lyrics, an immediate sense of danger or edge, less studio polish, a bit of restraint – is open for debate. The Joy Formidable are a mighty rock machine, and I have faith they’ll stumble upon that something quite soon, but the lack of whatever that something is makes the experience of Wolf’s Law a bit less necessary than it could be.
Wolf’s Law is out now via Atlantic Records.
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