Putting what the Joy Formidable sounds like into words hardly does the band justice, even more so than with most acts. That’s in large part because the Welsh group boasts a maximal aesthetic that begs to be described with adjectives in the superlative form and punctuated with lots of exclamation points, considering the hyperbolic scale and scope of the Joy Formidable’s visceral soundscapes. And it doesn’t exactly help matters that the musical vocabulary that best creates a mental image of the Joy Formidable’s approach tends to paint a picture of the band’s amped-up take on ’90s alt-rock as a bit dated, even unhip, when it’s anything but. So while it would be on the mark to characterize Wolf’s Law as an album brimming with arena-ready anthems, that only makes it seem like a post-grunge modern-rock record that somehow got lost in the cut-out bin of history, rather than the vital, totally current effort that it is.
Sure, maybe Wolf’s Law‘s I-love-the-’90s power-trio dynamics, pop surrealist cover art, and emo-esque vocals might seem like an over-the-top trainwreck on paper, but the Joy Formidable is somehow able to pull it all together and make it work thanks to the unflagging conviction it puts into its music. Actually, there’s something refreshing about the Joy Formidable’s unabashed, festival-sized aspirations in this age of austerity and bootstraps resourcefulness, as the threesome, led by its indomitable frontwoman Ritzy Bryan, takes a basic guitar-bass-drums onslaught and pushes it past the limits of excess and extravagance. The epic opener “This Ladder Is Ours” sets a breakneck pace that would be unsustainable for most acts, but the Joy Formidable only continues to up the tempo and energy even after the song has taken off. Once its revved-up riffing and booming beats start to climb, “This Ladder Is Ours” never comes down, ascending higher and higher in pitch and intensity. Coming on the heels of “Ladder” is the roiling “Cholla”, which may not reach the towering heights of what precedes it, but does more than its share in keeping the momentum going with a more punkish and spontaneous vibe.
Indeed, what’s impressive about Wolf’s Law is that it can still surprise and overwhelm you even when you know more and more of the same is coming. On the power-packed “Little Blimp”, the slight lull intro’ing the song only sets up the knockout blow you know they’re readying, which comes in a dizzying, dazzling array of sped-up metal-driven guitar lines, alt-funk bass, and bashed-up percussion. More sprawling compositions like “The Leopard and the Lung” and “The Hurdle” don’t attenuate the band’s energy or passion despite stretching things out — if anything, they’re more powerful in the way the Joy Formidable uses more complicated dynamics and layers on added orchestral elements to heighten the decadent effect they’re aiming for. In particular, “The Hurdle” stands out by opening things up for Bryan’s tuneful singing and a full-on string arrangement to really resonate, begging for you to concentrate on its melodic intricacies despite generating the pummeling listening experience that’s par for the course on Wolf’s Law.
That said, pushing things so far can sometimes go too far, even if it seems like it’s hardly possible that upping the ante makes a difference when the Joy Formidable has already thrown in the kitchen sink. On the surface of things, “Bats” is as winning a track as any other on Wolf’s Law, as its interplay of pounding rhythms and counterpunching riffs moves towards critical mass. But Bryan’s distorted spoke-sung vocals and the cheesy pop-metal accents suggest that the band can have a little trouble figuring out when to stop, as its attempts at Siamese Dream-like majesty end up in Mellon Collie-esque overreach. More egregious is the multi-part extravaganza “Maw Maw Song”, which finds the Joy Formidable at its most gratuitous, stomping and trudging with doom-and-gloom pomp-and-circumstance: So while “Maw Maw Song” does flaunt the band’s deft command over changing speeds and volume, it also shows that the Joy Formidable has a lot less control over its extravagant impulses, especially when Bryan chants “Maw maw” on top of the main riff with a distorted vocal effect that sounds like a feral cat. Even more preposterous when you hear it than when you read about it, it’s one of those glaring moments when the Joy Formidable indulges its sweet tooth for just one more ingredient in the mix only to throw the whole piece off.
The thing is, the Joy Formidable proves on Wolf’s Law that it can create grandeur and awe by letting contrast and touch speak volumes more than overpowering brute force can. In particular, the loud-soft-loud, fast-slow-fast dynamics of “Tendons” generate drama by depending on the masterful play of textures and tempo, seeming more complex and composed but hardly any more restrained. So when Bryan sings desperately that “Tendons stretch too far” on it, the Joy Formidable actually extends itself just the right amount on the track. Even more compelling is the bittersweet symphony “The Turnaround”, the quietest number on Wolf’s Law (relatively speaking, of course): on “The Turnaround”, the sound may not be cranked up as high, but the melodramatic sweep of its weeping violins, deliberate drums, and Bryan’s swoony crooning inspires a sense of wonder that more than makes up for volume and bombast.
Of course, you would never say that less is more in the case of the Joy Formidable, but not quite as much might just be for the ambitious band. So even if Bryan’s mantra-like line “You want it all / I know you do” turns into pretty much a self-fulfilling prophecy with Wolf’s Law, knowing when to say when might be words to live by that are more apt for the Joy Formidable, going forward.