I first heard Joy Formidable when a friend sent me a link to ‘Greyhound In The Slips’ a few years back. The song, which didn’t appear on their 2008 mini-album, ‘A Balloon Called Moaning’ or their 2010 album ‘The Big Roar’, was, and still is damn, damn good. It’s derivative as hell, but there wasn’t a great deal of stuff around at the time, particularly British rock stuff that was peaking its head above the parapet…maybe the Editors? Yikes. Anyway. The Joy Formidable represented something exciting. They incorporated BIG noise into pretty damn big commercial stuff. Not since ‘The Remote Part’ came out in 2002 has their been a band with that kind of ambiton to tackle the mainstream armed with a few distortion pedals and some genuine depth. I’m leaving Biffy Clyro out of this for the time being as that’s a whole other thing for a whole other time.
Anyway, ‘A Balloon Called Moaning’ & ‘The Big Roar’ came and went, big support slots and places on Twilight soundtracks happened and The Joy Formidable now represent heavy/commerical music in the UK, Foo Fighters endorsed to boot. I want to love The Joy Formidable, I really do. They’re noisy as shit, they look good, they’re articulate in interviews and speak passionately about the stuff they’re influenced by. I just can’t give myself over. ‘Wolf’s Law’ is their new record. It was self-produced, but mixed by Andy Wallace (he of…well, everything). On reading some pre-release interviews, it’s clear there was intent, thematically. Dissolution of a relationship as well as “global politics and Native American mythology” appeared to be lyrical jumping off points. Here’s the rub though, and perhaps my biggest problem with The Joy Formidable. It’s that, for all their sound and fury, for all the extended outros and noise-jams, theres often nothing in particular that’s memorable, and nothing that’s particularly significant. There’s bluster to spare, and volume to silence but there’s a dearth of ideas and words present that’s troubling.
The video for ‘Wolf’s Law’ (the single) is one such example. It’s all Michael Bay slo-mo shots of the sea, animals waking up, the world spinning around. Leaving you to join the dots and infer that this is, like, “big man…powerful even!”. ‘Wolf’s Law’ the song, is another good example of the worrying dichotomy that exists in the band. It’s one of the few songs on the album with dynamics, also one of the few with words that appear to be born of experience rather than their ability to fit together. It’s also a secret track. It builds from a lonely, plaintive piano figure, “another empty picture for this collage of mine” being a standout lyric. This lasts for about a minute and a half before pounding piano chords give way to cascading strings and drums for a big climax. Hell, it works for Snow Patrol, right?
For every great moment (and there are a few) like the opening gambit of ‘This Ladder Is Ours’ and ‘Cholla’, the latter featuring a fantastic circling riff twisting in and out of rhythms, there are just as many moments that just fall completely flat. ‘Silent Treatment’, the mid-album acoustic palette cleanser comes across as gratuitous instead of pretty. The nadir comes with ‘The Maw Maw Song’, which hurtles out of the gate like QOTSA ‘Go With The Flow’, but who’s chorus of ‘maw, maw, ma-maw, maw, maw, maw, ma-maw, maw……….’ (well. You get the idea), grates. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I want a band that has the belief in their convictions to write something worthwhile and of depth instead of something pissed up kids at an indie night can dance to. There are bones of fine songs here. BIG songs, and yes, very loud, but again they leave you with very little other than the initial rush of propulsion and volume.
In terms of the overall sound, the album on the whole is much more palatable that ‘The Big Roar’. The production more assured and less “beige”. It layers up more confidently, the hummed bass line in ‘Tendons’ recalls ‘Hell Of A Life’ from Kanye West’s ‘MBDTF’ of all things. ‘The Turnaround’ too is a fine album closer, the one use of strings on the record that doesn’t feel wholly unnecessary actually recalls Camera Obscura. Perhaps I’m being overly critical because of what Joy Formidable almost are, and that is one of the best mainstream rock bands these shores have produced since My Vitriol. At least half of the album feels like treading water though, melodies falling by the wayside. The same pounding drums, the same big chords, accentuated periodically with strings just to push the point that this is EPIC. I’m torn. I almost love The Joy Formidable. For what they want to be, and yes, for what they nearly are. As it stands though, when I listen to them, I’m left with an empty feeling no amount of crashing distortion can mask.
Words: Chris McGovern