At first glance, Welsh trio the Joy Formidable appears to be yet another example of several things that we currently have far too many of. Another UK guitar act making rounds in the NME buzz bin. Another band languishing in the indie rock blogosphere long before producing an actual album to prove them worthy of the hype. Another incarnation of both of the above that takes a large swath of their inspiration from the eternally fashionable likes of My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain.
Still, anyone who has heard the band’s EP A Balloon Called Moaning (2009 or 2010, depending on whether you sent them a cheque for the handsomely designed self released version or awaited the wider indie label releases) knows that the Joy Formidable has something special to offer, even the variety of niche markets as bombarded with so many Next Big Things and so little attention span as theirs are. While their sound certainly owes some debt to the usual popular influences, the band’s reach extends far beyond that, deriving just as much from the mammoth guitar haze of the ‘90s that has lately come back into favor with such acclaimed recent indie acts as Yuck and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Even then, the band’s checkpoints don’t stop at American grunge-era superstars like Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, dipping just as much into the largely forgotten well of jaggedly melodic female-led UK pop groups like Sleeper, Elastica and Echobelly. Additionally, the simultaneously piercing and waifish vocals of Ritzy Bryan, the band’s somehow-appropriately-named singer, even add a healthy additional dose of Björk’s Debut/Post-era playful eccentricity.
The result is a unique melding of several familiar styles that stands out among the Joy Formidable’s many retro-fixated contemporaries as one that is richer and more distinct for not deriving from a single common denominator. This was fairly evident on A Balloon Called Moaning, but full length debut The Big Roar is where the band truly announces itself as one of the standout UK and indie rock acts of recent years. If their previous release proved that they already had the songs, this one nevertheless represents a bold leap forward in the band’s sound, a gargantuan sonic assault that, for all of the punkish immediacy on display in such frenzied whiplashes as “The Magnifyig Glass” and “Chapter 2”, still carries the feeling of being the result of much polish and refinement.
The Big Roar is both an astonishingly confident record and one driven by the tension between the imposing weight that comes with standing on the shoulders of giants and the need to capture a particular moment in time and make it one’s own. Young bands have always been faced with maintaining a respectful balance between the past and their own present, but this is perhaps a unique era in that, for the first time, a new act like the Joy Formidable already has its own past to compete with. The sound that opens The Big Roar, before the album launches into the lurching seven-minute swirl of “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie”, is that of balloons being leaked of air and then popping. A cheeky way of cleansing the palette established by A Balloon Called Moaning? A stretch, perhaps, but two songs later, on the insistent charge of “I Don’t Want to See You Like This”, finds Ritzy Bryan declaring “this is the past right here / I choose to leave it here”, at once an acknowledgement of the entwined histories coursing through this record and a great push forward.
The Big Roar makes this tension even more explicit by bravely reviving four of the standout songs from A Balloon Called Moaning here in varying degrees of souped-up forms. Of those, the spry, anxious “Cradle” and the pensive, grandiose “The Greatest Light of the Greatest Shade” (the opening track on A Balloon Called Moaning, the closing one here) appear to be nearly identical to their original versions beyond what sounds like a beefier mastering job. The two other get significantly more dramatic makeovers, the more immediately noticeable being “Whirring”, initially a succinct three-and-a-half minute stomp now stretched out to an arena-sized epic at what ends up at double that length. The back-and-forth between the chiming verses and the loud, pummeling release of the chorus that gave the original version of the song its agile sense of balance now gives way to a raging extended Sabbath-on-Speed (and The Joy Formidable are one of the few bands that remember the influence that Ozzy and co. had on even the most punk-minded of the first wave of ‘90s alt.rock bands) instrumental outro powerful enough to justify the album title all on its own.
By contrast, the addition of a few extra seconds of atmospheric noise and a bit of ringing Edge-like guitar at the end of “Austere” feels almost too quaint to mention, but of the older songs included here, it is the one that actually feels most improved in the transition. Credit the song itself, of course, for its ingenious merging of a squealing wordless vocal hook, a rubbery bass line, a wall of fuzzed-out guitar cacophony and a hauntingly opaque set of lyrics (“I’d rescue you now / but in velvet you’ll drown” and “you’re just another unfinished story now” all hinting in the direction of something indefinably tragic), but these same elements existed before with only a fraction of the effect. Perhaps it is a matter of mere context that finds the song transformed into something transcendent despite few traceable alterations, but placed amidst the bold panorama of The Big Roar, the original “Austere” now sounds positively embryonic in comparison.
That growth is what The Big Roar seems to represent. Fitting the older songs seamlessly into this album’s larger canvas speaks somewhat to their quality and the clarity of the band’s vision from the get go, but the band’s real accomplishment here is finally getting their songs to sound on record the way they must have always sounded in their heads. For an album that felt to many like a long time coming, The Big Roar proves more than worthy of the wait.
// Notes from the Road
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