by Michael Clark
The Joy Formidable
I should be dancing. I should be bounding around the room like a hyperactive child that’s had too many blue Smarties. I should be incessantly pissing off the neighbours by playing this album at some obscene volume until the early hours. At the very least I should be nodding my head and tapping my feet a little bit. I mean, this is rock music for f***’s sake – it’s supposed to grab me by the balls and excite me. It’s supposed to elicit some sort of primal reaction, to provoke something within. And yet, the only feeling incited by The Joy Formidable’s second album Wolf’s Law was one of mild indifference, and for the music they’re trying to make that’s basically the worst sort of reaction I could have.
Actually, before we start arguing over semantics and sub-genres, I just need to point out that Wolf’s Law is without doubt a rock album. The band have forgone the trappings of indie, noise-rock and shoegaze they once embraced on previous records in favour of ubiquitous stadium rock you could easily file alongside Muse and Biffy Clyro; although they lack the appeal that comes with the indulgent silliness of Muse and the workmanlike charm of Biffy. This is music purposely designed to fill a stadium, in terms of both sound and butts on seats, and I have no doubt The Joy Formidable will do exactly that. Guitar bombast has always been their shtick, but they’ve managed to apply their cosmic racket to hooky, overly-accessible and, perhaps most importantly, radio-friendly songs almost consistently throughout the album. Great, right? Well, not really; to create a more accessible sound they’ve eschewed the sort of sonic experimentation they dabbled in before and the results are incredibly bland.
The orchestral prelude of album opener ‘This Ladder is Ours’ was never the best of signs, as orchestrated sections on rock albums often feel po-faced attempts at forced importance to me and The Joy Formidable were never the sort of band that would indulge in that kind of thing before, but at least that track has a bit of oomph about it; the same could be said of the following track ‘Cholla’. These are the tracks most heavily imbued with pop sensibilities, and as such live by the strength of their simple hooks: the vivacious, urgent riff of ‘This Ladder is Ours’ which in a sense brings to mind Sonic Youth, and the chugging melody of ‘Cholla’ with Ritzy Bryan repetitiously chirping “Where are we going, what are we doing?” They’re simple tracks, but they’re also incredibly solid, radio-friendly singles that I couldn’t help caught up in because I could feel the energy. And if anything, these tracks serve to totally show up the rest of the album because the band never comes close to reaching those modest heights again.
Following the lethargic third track ‘Tendons’ – which is an utterly joyless, vapid attempt at drama that is surely only there to make up the numbers – we arrive at the guitar laden one-two hit of ‘Little Blimp’ and ‘Bats’, a twosome which are wholly representative of my main issue with this album barring the first two tracks. Ideally, these should be the most energetic tracks on the album by virtue of how heavily the band is playing, they’re clearly trying to create a sense of excitement but utterly fail in that attempt because of the cleanness of the production. The band produced the album themselves, but it is in these two tracks that I could most explicitly hear the work of mixer Andy Wallace, who has recently worked with the likes of Biffy Clyro, Dream Theatre and Guns N’ Roses. Looking at the bands he’s worked with, it totally makes sense that the band drafted in somebody who can make an artist sound absolutely fucking ginormous in terms of volume but can’t make them feel remotely big at all. It’s like there’s a 20-inch thick pane of glass in between me and the band – one which allows sheer volume to pass through with ease, but one that also soaks up all the dynamism and passion – meaning all I’m hearing is the flaccid, lifeless remains. It’s pure tedium.
Let’s go back to their first album, The Big Roar, for a bit , just to see where they went right. While it was clearly an album heavily indebted towards almost the entire 90’s Alt-Rock scene, you could at least see the band playing with different styles, effects and forms. It sort of felt like a cut-and-paste-job of Alt-Rock archetypes, like the band was finding its voice through an entire genre. It didn’t always work, in fact the album was a mess and totally imperfect, but it was the imperfections and sonic quirks that made it worth listening to and worth getting at least a little bit excited about. A good example is one of the singles, ‘I Don’t Want to See You Like This’, which threatened to be a fairly middling radio-friendly track, the sort of thing you can find on Wolf’s Law, yet the chorus was underpinned by the subtlest of guitar drones which sounded almost as if somebody was using a drill in another room. It didn’t sound quite right, disconcerting in a way, but it held my attention in a way I scarcely imagined. It may be the most minor detail, but the details absolutely matter. It was that detail that was the difference between me actively engaging with that song and it going in one ear and out the other. It’s these sorts of details that are missing from Wolf’s Law.
That song wasn’t a one off either; they imbued musical conventions with experimental touches throughout the album. That’s not to say it always worked, but at least you could see the band trying things out. The standout song from The Big Roar was arguably ‘Whirring’, yet that track could have easily strayed into the territory of a cliché-ridden, mobile-phone-advert-ready indie anthem. However, the way they inverted that well-worn song archetype and turned the latter half of the track into a colossal four minute wall of sound – one which loosely resembled Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, and almost deviated into heavy metal territory – was sort of remarkable. Maybe I’m reading too much into that album, maybe they were just using effects and noise to disguise average song writing, but at least there was something to read into with that album, something to chew on. It’s the sort of album you fall in love with as a fourteen year-old, the sort of album I described in the first sentences of this review.
So if The Big Roar showcased the band experimenting with conventions and cliché, Wolf’s Law is the band embracing cliché with open arms, sticking their tongue its throat and giving it a cheeky hand-job under the table. Gone are the quirks, the shoegazing effects, the gloriously unnecessary seven-minute epics. They’ve refined, shed most of the experimentation for glossy, accessible stadium rock. The production is cleaner, the style more consistent throughout the album and the songs awfully uninteresting as a result. They’re not bad songs as such, with a few exceptions they’re perfectly serviceable and utterly average – but that’s sort of worse in a way. At least bad music provokes something from me. I mean, what is music supposed to do if not incite various forms of sensation? And while I can appreciate that the band plays well and vocalist Ritzy Bryan’s range has improved a great deal since The Big Roar, what they’re playing on is just a bit insipid.
If you want an example of that, just listen to ‘Silent Treatment’, the sixth track on Wolf’s Law. If there’s been a more ill-judged attempt at the ‘obligatory acoustic guitar ballad’ archetype recently I’d like to know. It just comes across as a bit 2007-era Pop-Punk, where the sort of bands Kerrang! Magazine fawned over would stick a slower acoustic track to break things up a bit. They were never any good but people seemed to like them because they presented the one bit of deviation from a formulaic heavy guitar sound, and it’s sort of the same situation with this track – although to be fair to The Joy Formidable, they are much better than the sort of bands Kerrang’s liked in 2007. I was there – they were indeed bad times.
It’s not all doom and gloom though: ‘Maw Maw Song’ comes next, and while I’m convinced is a complete mess of a song, I’ll be damned if it’s not the most interesting thing on the album. It jarringly flits between verses that wouldn’t sound out of place on a standard album track by Metric and a chorus that has all the vigour and bombast of a Led Zeppelin song, but that frankly bizarre dichotomy of styles was enough to keep me engaged. Now, I’m still not entirely sure whether it’s knowingly ridiculous in a Muse sort of way or just plain-fucking-dumb – with a chorus of “Maw maw ma ma ma ma maw” it’s perhaps safe to assume the former, but then again the verses are delivered in a totally deadpan manner so it’s hard to be certain – but either way, it contains the elements of experimentation that made ‘The Big Roar’ largely successful. It’s totally chaotic, but the range of sounds on offer in this track alone provides a decent enough respite from the monotony of what came before. I’m still undecided as to whether it’s actually a good song or not, but its presence on the album is more than welcome in my books.
However, the remaining few tracks following ‘Maw Maw Song’ suffer from the exact same problems of that which came before: they sound big but don’t feel big. I simply cannot reciprocate the feelings they’re trying to communicate in both the music and the lyrics. There’s a continual theme within the lyrics that’s based on the application of Wolf’s Law – the theory that bones and muscles become stronger when loaded with stress – to relationships and paired that theme with colossal noise; although that sounds a lot better on paper than it does in execution. I get the idea behind it, but when I feel as if there’s a barrier between me and the band I just can’t engage with it properly. ‘The Big Roar’ showed their keen eye for applying experimental touches to what could be ordinary indie-rock songs, but they’re not really exercising that ability, and that’s a real disappointment. But I guess by taking fewer risks and cleaning up their sound they’ve ensured that, come their next album, they’ll be playing some of the biggest venues in the country. It’s not that they’ve regressed, they’ve just plateaued – stunted their musical development to gain a larger audience. It’s a shame in a way, but I still think they have the ideas to be an interesting band in the future. And if you have the chance to see them live, jump at it; I’m sure they’ll be absolutely killer on any festival stage. On record however, they feel about as dead as the wolf on the album sleeve.