Album Review: The Joy Formidable - Wolf’s Law

Since breaking out of their native Wales in late 2010, The Joy Formidable have straddled a line that few bands in a post-Internet world have been able to. They’re not quite artsy enough to be fully embraced by the Pitchfork crowd, and they don’t have the commercial-baiting hooks that both television and modern rock format radio stations love to spin twice an hour, but they’re not completely ignored by either industry either. (Just think about M83′s career before and after radio picked up “Midnight City.”) So how did the spunky Welshfolk make a name for themselves upon the release of their 2010 debut album, The Big Roar? Simple: they toured the hell out of their album. From late 2010 to the end of last year, singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan, bassist Rhydian Dafydd, and drummer Matt Thomas toured essentially non-stop, splitting those two years primarily between opening for a pair of bands that know a thing or two about making massive-sounding records and booking their own gigs while playing pretty much every festival bill they can get onto.

However, unlike a number of arena-sized bands, The Joy Formidable rarely lost themselves to the bluster of the massive scale of their music, consistently delivering close to an hour of loud, furious, wall-of-sound rock at their festival, supporting, and headlining gigs, and in the process, they became (arguably) the biggest Welsh band since Manic Street Preachers or Super Furry Animals. Considering their lengthy and relentless time on the road, it’s easy to see why Wolf’s Law is structured like a well-paced concert setlist. It begins with a string arrangement that would make a perfect pre-taped walk-on-stage intro (“This Ladder Is Ours”), launches into a series of high-energy songs built around turn-on-a-dime riffs (“Cholla”, “Little Blimp”), puts the more experimental and quiet moments in the middle (“Silent Treatment”, “Forest Serenade”), ramps up the volume again (“The Leopard and The Lung”, “The Hurdle”) and then closes with a massive, swelling track (“The Turnaround”). The album-as-setlist approach is an unusual one for a band not touring a nostalgia-baiting album replication tour, but for a trio of road dogs like The Joy Formidable, this is a pretty foolproof strategy.

Unlike the songs on The Big Roar, which alternated between “loud” and “slightly less loud”, the tunes on Wolf’s Law occupy a much larger dynamic spectrum. On the softer end of things, “Silent Treatment” finds Ritzy and Rhydian comfortably trading out their fuzz pedals for acoustic guitars, and the pair of closing tracks, “The Hurdle” and “The Turnaround” (not to mention the hidden title track) are as gorgeously melodic as anything else they’ve recorded at full volume. However, for all its experimentation, Wolf’s Law makes it clear that The Joy Formidable haven’t given up on turning their amps up to 11. (After all, this is a band that closes their sets by smashing their guitars into a gong.) If anything, it only shows how good they’ve gotten at writing songs that aim straight for the listener’s jugular. Ritzy and Rhydian’s riffs are as punishing as ever, and if not for the hook-laden choruses, “Cholla” and “Little Blimp” would make a pair of great post-hardcore songs. The album’s best songs’ sections lock into a ferocious rhythm, anchored by not-so-secret weapon Matt Thomas (who probably prepared for the sessions by watching Fresh Pots on repeat), and never look back. In a move that shows a massive amount of confidence, the band produced and recorded the album mostly by themselves in Maine, and even without a producer to consult, they’ve played to their own strengths remarkably well, and when they aren’t afraid to go out on a limb (especially the so-crazy-it-works “Maw Maw Song”), the results are just as exciting as the more conventional tunes. It takes a lot of guts to record an anticipated sophomore album after two years on the road without a producer and a slew of songs that branch in new directions, but The Joy Formidable have pulled it off handily.

The titular law refers to a bone’s tendency to adapt to the loads under which it is placed, which is clearly what The Joy Formidable have done. Now that they’re playing bigger shows, they need a longer, more dynamic setlist, so they went and made one - the loud songs are immediate, the experiments are interesting enough to keep attention, and when put all together, it’s going to sound great live. Sure, there’s no Kid A-style reinvention going on here, but they’re definitely not spinning their wheels either, and it’s The Joy Formidable’s commitment to taking new paths while still playing to their strengths that makes Wolf’s Law one of the more satisfying sophomore outings in recent memory. There’s no single here that’s going to make them explode like M83 did in 2011 (although “This Ladder Is Ours” and “Cholla” are more than radio friendly singles), but that’s probably for the best, because it means you’ll have plenty of chances to see Wolf’s Law at its most ferocious.

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