The Joy Formidable - Wolf's Law

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Since their inception in 2007, The Joy Formidable (two thirds Mold, one third Wolverhampton) have had a sonic scope and ambition that set them apart from the majority of their peers. It was evident even when they crafted their mini album, A Balloon Called Moaning, in a tiny London bedsit in 2007 and 2008.

Much of what they recorded there set the template for their debut album proper, The Big Roar. That was a glorious rush of an album. Like the raw and wild north Walean environments it evoked, The Big Roar was, by turn, as serene and peaceful as a bright morning in the Clwydian foothills, then as tempestuous with white noise as a hurricane battering the summit of Moel Famau.

Whatever the backdrop, Ritzy's voice - from a whisper to a clarion call - sang about claustrophobia and escape in a unique lexicon; human truths told through a symbolism of instrumentation: dials, abacuses, spectrums, magnifying glasses, maps, telescopes. It made for one of the most arresting debut albums of recent years.

Some labelled it 'shoegaze', ignoring the strength and defiance that powered through the album's veins; others heard in it aspects of the Generation X hipster sounds of The Breeders or Belly - great bands, but bands that obscured the emotional truths of their songs.

It's amazing how reductive and short-sighted the comparisons can be when the only unifying factor is the singer's gender.

So, what also sets The Joy Formidable apart is their emotional integrity. At the centre of the band is a bruised heart; not a knowing wink, a clever grin, or a curled lip. In the UK we're somewhat suspicious of 'heart on sleeve'. The bands that have secured critical favour in the couple of years since The Big Roar's release have - for the most part - been nerdy and disengaged, eschewing any overt displays of emotion because, well, that just wouldn't be British:

"Here, listen to my retro synth and marvel (quietly) at my ironic 80s specs, instead..."

And interesting as the recent albums by Hot Chip, Alt-J or Django Django have been, I doubt they speak to anyone above and beyond the catchy tunes, geeky charm, and the emotional context the listeners' lives bring to their music.

We've had torch songs from Adele, Anna Calvi and the like, but Ritzy Bryan and The Joy Formidable are a world away from the predictable dimensions of those iPhone melodramas.

So, The Joy Formidable are a priceless anomaly - something different in a world that wants to flog us reprints of past glories (hello Haim!).

Yet, it's accurate to say that a year wowing crowds in large theatres and arenas in the States has meant that they've rather fallen off the radar of the UK's tastemakers. Zane Lowe has been quick to support the early singles from the new album, but their music doesn't match 6 Music's rather conservative, Radio-2-for-indie-kids' furniture. Hipster UK journalists and bloggers - second guessing themselves to breathless impotence - are still trying to work out whether to resurrect the guitar, or not.

So, where do The Joy Formidable - and their second album Wolf's Law - fit into this landscape?

Well, they don't. If the UK's tastemakers found The Big Roar contradictory and perplexing, they're likely to feel banjaxed by Wolf's Law. It doesn't play their game. The atmospherics that drifted over The Big Roar like a sea-mist have - for the most part - been blown away.

Wolf's Law - released on 21 January - opens with an orchestral swell that builds and builds, increasing in intensity and heat until it spontaneously combusts, making way for This Ladder Is Ours' dizzying riff. It's a trick that underlines that Wolf's Law is more about focus - sharper songs, more varied arrangements - a multitude of joys to reward repeated listens.

The album's opening two songs are the band's most straightforward - yet they're still unpredictable, a little strange and off kilter. Not as off kilter as Throwing Muses or The Breeders or, say, Stealing Sheep - but doubly as communicative because of their apparent simplicity and straightforwardness.

Tendons underlines how far the band have come as writers. This is a brave and honest summation of the personal relationship at the band's core - beautifully poeticised. It's a song that will find a resonance with anyone who's battled through trying times hand in hand with a partner. It's painted from a palette of uniquely assembled sounds: Rhydian's baritone, fuzzed beyond recognition, acts as the bass; a harp emerges, glittering from the maelstrom; Matt's timpani roll like an imminent storm and white noise guitars support Ritzy's perfectly pitched vocal.

None of these seemingly disparate threads clash. I think it's their finest moment - the greatest evocation of their elemental music, yet.

Little Blimp is frenetic and sinuous. It bursts in a spangle of unexpected, atonal shards of guitar: a contemporary echo of Roger McGuinn's intro on Eight Miles High. Yes, it has an anthemic four-to-the-floor bass drum that'll have audiences from Milwaukee to Cardiff stamping along, but it twists that template into vicious new shapes. Matt's drumming throughout is powerful, nuanced and eloquent to the point that I'm happy to rescind my ban on double bass drum pedals, if only for him.

Bats is the vortex at the centre of the album, feeding off all of the fuzz bristling at the edges of Wolf's Law's other songs. It's monstrous - a blast of exotic thunder and bit-crushed vocals. "We keep hanging on" sings Ritzy again, and again, and again, in defiance of the tumult around her.

Silent Treatment is open, droning acoustic strings and Ritzy's lighthouse vocal. Something cathartic and emotionally complex drawn in the simplest, most affecting shapes. It's a nursery rhyme for a scarred grown-up; a candlelit refuge for anyone who's hidden their cuts and bruises, for whatever reason.

If Bats is the album's whirlpool, Maw Maw Song is Godzilla emerging from its darkest waters. A delicate flutter of Japanese harp is brutalised by guitars that sound like juggernauts crashing head-on into each other. It mutates into something propulsive and Germanic (they never called it Krautrock, by all accounts - not willingly, anyway) and - again - we're in hitherto untraversed territory. Jake Bugg this is not. It's a moment to salute the band's ambition to create something thrilling and new for us. It's the album's least successful six minutes and 48 seconds, for me (bar the rainbow mushroom cloud guitar solo) but - for many people who've heard Wolf's Law - it's their standout track. Where there is absolute consensus, frequently there is conservatism, so I'm happy for us to disagree.

Forest Serenade isn't as pastoral as it sounds. It ascends on a melody that reaches for something unattainable above the treetops. A breathless escapade like a Grimm fairytale scored by guitars - and, in an intimate breakdown where Ritzy sounds like she's singing right in the centre of your soul, it delivers one of the album's most heart-stopping moments.

Fifty-one seconds into The Leopard And The Lung, Ritzy's hushed vocal, accompanied by a piano twinkling above a torrent of white noise, sounds a little like Grimes. Grimes with their hip and clever, but rather insubstantial and emotionless, interpretation of The Knife. Oh, it isn't on purpose, and it's just for a moment. It soon becomes something more, something other.

However it makes me wonder if The Joy Formidable give too much - in terms of arrangement and drama - to ever get themselves embraced by the UK's music cognoscenti, where less-is-more appears to be the predominant philosophy.

The Hurdle starts with footsteps in the Maine snow. It's another song (like Forest Serenade) borne out of Ritzy and Rhydian's affinity and love for the natural world - and, I think, those indigenous people who live in harmony with it. A sense of imminent loss hangs heavy over The Hurdle. It accelerates to a menacing, untimely end...

It would have been an interesting ellipsis on which to end the album. However there is one more twist in this wolf's tail.

The Turnaround is an unsentimental torch song... partially Spector's Wall of Sound, partially Roy Orbison's It's Over. It's terrific, moving drama. The orchestral swell that began the album ends it, inviting you to start all over again.

And there we have it: Wolf's Law, a crafted, multi-layered, and frequently thrilling album to find yourselves thoroughly lost in. It's a complex triumph, an album that reserves its many wonders for those prepared to immerse themselves in it.

Who wants to be one of the pack, anyway?

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