Release Date: January 22, 2013
Joy Formidable singer-guitarist Ritzy Bryan often seems like a pitiless and superhuman assassin from a comic book, laying waste to your pleasure centers with one fatal swoosh. After work-shopping their way through a few EPs, Bryan’s band released their debut album, The Big Roar, in 2011, the product of classic-rock nerds imagining the result if Jimmy Page had swapped his beloved J.R.R. Tolkien and Joni Mitchell for Neil Gaiman and the Sundays. But they were hard-working nerds: The outro to “Whirring” unleashed enough multidimensional energy to satiate Galactus.
What’s impressive about Bryan is not that she’s mastered the quiet-to-loud, pretty-to-brutal binary. Plenty of people do that. What makes her stand out is an unusual ability to take the basic building blocks of dream pop (head-in-the-clouds melodies, atmospheric guitar tones, all-purpose ethereality) and build them into Narnia-sized beasts. She simultaneously seduces and destroys. The nearest possible reference point is the briefly popular ’90s alt-pop band Belly’s incongruously awesome cover of “Are You Experienced?” for 1993’s Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix, the most misbegotten tribute album in an era of used-bin-clogging tribute albums. Though Belly didn’t age into a cool band to name-drop, their one-off merger of intoxicating guitar swirl and classic swagger is one of those “What if?” paths unexplored until the Joy Formidable decided they were going to own it.
Bryan is a guitar hero in an era when that beast seems as rare and wondrous as a direwolf. So it’s inevitable that she’d want to boss up to arena-sized for her next go-around. But the lead-up to sophomore album Wolf’s Law was rife with troubling signs. The band agreed to tour with Muse, for one thing, and then released a wildly pretentious black-and-white video featuring bloom-and-burst desert imagery paired with a drawn-out piano intro, all meant to promote the title track, which we must reiterate is for an album called Wolf’s Law, which is some Ian Astbury shit.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a band chasing mass popularity: Lord knows the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Kings of Leon can’t headline our nation’s music festivals in perpetuity. But there’s a reliably soul-deadening result when a young, vibrant rock band embrace oceans of arena-aspirant production so gargantuan you don’t realize how staid most of the songs are at their core. The Joy Formidable’s volcanic chops and palpable thirst to be the biggest band in the land are part of their charm — a holdover from the tribute-album-and-used-CD-store days, even. But what made them special was their realization that volume alone is just a parlor trick. Older songs like “Cradle” were taut, nervy compositions, with jittery new-wave rhythms and circular coos; the cathartic guitar blasts felt like the only sane option after all that nervous energy had grown too great to bear. Whereas, the misfires on Wolf’s Law mistakenly posit the cathartic outburst as a song’s starting point, rather than a natural outgrowth.
And so “Maw Maw Song” cuts out the bliss in favor of a bludgeoning riff so butt-simple it feels like its own Beavis and Butt-head parody, with bassist Rhydian Dafydd and drummer Matt Thomas forsaking their anxious push for a slow-riding, pedestrian groove. It’s size for size’s sake, content to revel in its own self-satisfied power. The title track and orchestra-backed “The Turnaround” would both sound right at home in the next big wizards-and-dragons fantasy-flick trailer; but to complete the Epic Song Checklist, Bryan’s limits her color-saturated palette to only the most obvious hues: It’s serviceable arena rock, but charmless for such a melodically lush outfit.
Then again, this achingly ambitious band probably had to get this stuff out of their system; sophomore slumps are a cliché for a reason. The songs that collapse under their own weight find the band struggling to feel epic, but Wolf’s Law still soars when the band struggles instead with epic feelings. Atop Thomas’ tricky, near-thrash-metal gait, Bryan goes to war with her neuroses on “The Ladder Is Ours”: She might have escaped her doubt-filled mind, but there’s enough dread in her vocals and chaos in her heady guitar churn to make you wonder. Based on the desperate climax of “Bats” (“I had a reason / But the reason went away”), her version of escape is to burn down everything in her path to get out.
Better yet, “Forest Serenade” has an eye-rolling Game of Thrones title, but it’s actually the closest thing to a mission statement the Joy Formidable have ever released. Backed by a spasming vortex of a riff, Bryan sketches a portrait of a troubled couple crumbing under the pressure of the adult world (“The baby I’m not ready for / The baby you weren’t ready for”), and makes a moving argument for why people escape into things like dream pop and epic fantasy, before coming to the inevitable conclusion that life’s messy realities can only be kept at bay so long (“We’ll go together / One last time / There may be other chances / But I know darker thoughts seep in and overtake”). Though they sometimes lose their way playing by other people’s rules, the Joy Formidable want to take you to a higher plane. It’s the only way they can get a few moments of peace from themselves.