The Joy Formidable - The Cockpit, Leeds - Wednesday 9 February 2011
If guitar music is dead - throttled by slick pop, the X Factor swindle and dubstep's quickly evolving progeny - no one's told the kids of Leeds. It's a cold, midweek night but there's a queue outside the Cockpit and a number of disappointed faces on the pavement: "if you haven't got a ticket mate, don't bother".
Judging by this turnout, The Joy Formidable's incessant touring, allied with significant support from 6 Music, is paying dividends. Importantly the root cause for this interest is their music. There's a surging wonder to their songs, something elevating that sets them aside from many of their apologetic British contemporaries. And there isn't an ironic synth or '80s haircut in sight.
In fact, irony is refreshingly absent. When they finally take to the stage, once everything has been tweaked just so, it's clear that the last couple of years touring has given them an innate understanding of how to build and stage a show. It's far more than contrivance or manipulation, though. The set oozes into being, strange elemental sounds rattling the speakers while fairy lights twinkle on mysterious tree sculptures. It's like being dragged into a Grimm's Fairy Tale. It's no easy listening, tub-thumping, staged-by-numbers intro to a rock show, that's for certain.
The Joy Formidable
They open with the lead track from The Big Roar, The Ever Changing Spectrum Of A Lie. It's a track that encompasses much of what is to follow. There are familiar shapes here: propulsive drums, crashing guitars, anthemic vocals; yet the track twists and turns, defying expectations at every turn. It's at once formulaic yet surprising and original. And thrilling.
I've been raised on live guitar music. But I've also grown up through raves, super clubs, drum 'n' bass, dubstep, and while each has its own particular crescendo, there isn't much that can match a band, fired by great songs, a fierce belief in what they're doing, and a great sense of physical drama. As the song climaxes and Ritzy belts 10 shades of hell out of her guitar, I'm totally swept along in the rush. It's breath taking, and the audience bellow and whistle their appreciation.
Ritzy's a remarkable focus for our attention: small in stature, massive in voice and storm of sound from her guitar. She's unique: anyone who can remind me of Siouxsie Sioux, Geordie (Killing Joke), Tanya Donnelly and Kurt Cobain - within the space of one song - is going to intrigue and fascinate. She's very much her own woman and it's impossible not to be carried along by her.
The Joy Formidable
When iTunes recently made The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade their Single of the Week (just the latest in a series of accolades, including being awarded Band of the Week by Rolling Stone) many of the comments on the page were rather confused by the song's pigeonhole-defying characteristics. When the band play that song tonight, judging by the loud cheers that greet the two note synth intro, it's clear that enough people got it and embraced it for the Joy Formidable's vision to prosper. It's the pinnacle of the set, for me. In a set far from short of highlights.
Every element of the show is bigger, brighter and better than the last time I saw them. The (great) singles Austere, Whirring and I Don't Want To See You Like This have grown in their dynamic scope. Whereas the last time I saw them I felt they were an overwhelming and exhausting continuous peak, this time there are more nuances, more gaps, more moments to take a breath before the next big roar. It's very cleverly done.
The entire set is illuminated by a remarkable (for a venue of this size) light show. When the blinding strobes kick in at the end of Cradle it's easy to imagine this magnificent sound and spectacle filling the biggest of arenas. Further revealing one of the many fascinating (apparent) contradictions at the heart of this band.
On the surface, these are fist-pumping 'alternative' rock songs, ripped out of the toppest drawer. Peer deeper, though, and there are all kinds of strange entities slipping in and out of the shadows. Ritzy's lyrics, for example, never fail to intrigue or discombobulate; the strange time signatures that infiltrate the songs and tip them side-on, just to screw with your expectations; the odd, otherworldly guitar sounds that occasionally percolate the mix.
The Joy Formidable
Without this unusual parallel dimension in their sound, The Joy Formidable would be a crack rock band, destined to entertain audiences, maybe cram arenas in the way that they've sold out this venue. But with this nest of shadows seething at their edge, they're a far rarer and more intriguing proposition. They're a band that could fill those arenas and make an enduring artistic statement.
Listening to the album this morning, it's a much darker affair than the live set hints at. But that's clever. It's the kind of clever that may prove to be one of the greatest defibrillations yet of rock's knackered heart.