The Joy Formidable Wolf's Law(Atlantic) Buy it from Insound
If you haven’t listened to The Joy Formidable before, that’s okay; it will take you only one song to catch up. By the end of This Ladder is Ours, it’s clear that The Joy Formidable want to write the biggest, most stadium-ready anthems that anyone has ever written, and for all 12 songs (there’s a hidden track at the end) of Wolf’s Law, they bring the raging vocals, distorted power chords, and slightly metal-tinged drumming to do just that, infusing it with modern dream pop sensibilities to keep it fresh. It’s the same thing they did on 2011’s debut The Big Roar, which means that if this is your first exposure, it’s thrilling, which anyone who has seen any of their wild, go-big-or-go-home live shows can attest to. If nothing else, this band will perform with a confidence that will make the initiated honestly believe that rock and roll can save the world for the duration of a live show. At the same time The Joy Formidable are good enough songwriters to make stadium rock sound fresh again, and break-out single Whirring sounded like a blast from a past that never quite was. But that also means if you exhausted your adrenaline listening to The Big Roar, Wolf’s Law will strike you as another work with a few memorable songs filled in by an exuberant supply of anthems in which big hooks and sheer willpower disguise a lack of variety or adventure.
Chief among those memorable tracks is the aforementioned This Ladder Is Ours, which employs a stringed intro that instills an otherworldly importance that colors the rest of the song. Like all the songs on the album, it’s inspired by—get this—Wolff’s Law, the theory that a broken bone heals stronger than it was before. For Singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan, though, it’s her heart, but the whole album is that overdue long walk and the attempts to “slow things down” she sings about in the first verse. When the song concludes, however, it does anything but, as rattling guitars kick into the next song and the rhythm section tears into perhaps its most relentless display of energy on the entire album while Bryan’s vocals, more questioning, take an appropriately elongated, less deterministic tone; her uncertainty and the “ooohs” in the bridge show you the other side of Wolf’s Law, the abstract, Neon Indian/Frankie Rose tinges that the album owes most of its replay value to. These are neither angry tales of failed relationships nor lovelorn, self-deprecating aches. It’s a constant battle between the two, torn between moving on and trying to work things out or wallowing in one’s own loneliness, angsty like the grunge icons that color her guitar work. When it gets the best of both worlds in the same song, like in Maw Maw Song, which alternates the crescendos of vocal-driven verses with the sludgy, pedal-driven choruses, or in the more lyrically harrowing Leopard and the Lung, Wolf’s Law feels like it fully works.
That such antagonistic sounds are mixed with the propellant rhythm section gives The Joy Formidable their freshness, but that they stick so close to pop structures and searing hooks makes them fresh. But Wolf’s Law, beyond the first two tracks, never reckons with these different sounds to any compelling degree, and as a result, does not differentiate itself from The Big Roar. Sure, Bats has backing vocals, but they’re quite minimal. Where The Big Roar was shamelessly melodramatic, Wolf’s Law hides its differences behind an extra coat of “big.” What results is as disappointing as it is fun, comfortably explosive, one might say. Only The Silent Treatmeant, an acoustic ballad, departs from the sound. That aside, whether a song is three minutes or seven minutes, it piles on another rollercoaster of a bridge and a few more sing/shout-along choruses.
Still, despite rarely achieving all of what it goes for, it’s hard to deny the sheer pleasure of getting the enormous hooks and noise that are constantly on display here. Ever since post-punk revival more or less faded out and the influence of Kid A began to make itself increasingly apparent, rock has headed more and more towards experimentation and electronica influences, indie crowds have begun to embrace hip-hop from Kendrick Lamar to El-P, and, most recently, the pop of Adele, Taylor Swift, and Carly Rae Jepsen have received acclaim from the same people that used to be too cool for the Top 40. This is far from a bad thing, but it also means that when somebody comes along and does the “rock and roll can save the world” thing convincingly, it’s a fun change of pace. You don’t have to be Arcade Fire to stake that claim, you just have to really believe it, and the more you believe in yourself as the ones who prove it, the better. The Joy Formidable believe both, even if they could believe the latter a bit more and let their ideas govern their mission instead of letting their mission govern their ideas and, subsequently, their songs. Still, they couldn’t have chosen a better band name.24 January, 2013 - 04:25 — Forrest Cardamenis