Album Review: The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law

[Atlantic; 2013]

The importance of contrast needn’t be understated when discussing the Joy Formidable. Much of their appeal rests within their formula for songwriting: charming guitar pop accompanied by thunderous, speaker-clipping levels of volume and enthusiasm. They established this blueprint with their first releases, A Balloon Called Moaning and The Big Roar. Without giving too much away, Wolf’s Law sounds similar to what has come before it, with a few notable exceptions.

The album’s title comes from Julius Wolff, a 19th century biologist who suggested that bones of healthy organisms can physically reinforce themselves to adapt to increased levels of force over time. Likewise, when the Joy Formidable throw out bruising numbers of decibels song after song, the effect becomes blunted. Wolf’s Law shuffles the deck, experimenting to a greater degree in both songwriting and production.

While the Joy Formidable are still mostly content to scream from the mountaintops and break eardrums, Wolf’s Law pulls back on this bombast ever so slightly and introduces some new twists to their aesthetic. After a bulging, mildly discordant orchestral intro, lead track “This Ladder is Ours” detonates without warning. It stitches melody and vigor together gorgeously, with Ritzy Bryan’s feminine, thickly-accented vocals playing foil to the chaos. Next comes “Cholla”, a Celtic-inspired blitz that contains the band’s leitmotif: “Where are we going?/What are we doing?” asks Bryan. The open-endedness of the question is surely not lost on her or her band mates.

Wolf Law’s musical flourishes are highly evocative, mostly through sheer magnitude. Some of its imagery is breathtaking, some is irresistible, and some of it is mundane. Making a case for the former is “The Leopard and the Lung,” a shrewdly written track that pairs a skintight piano riff with Marshall stacks. It hits with all the power oft a surf crashing into a cliffside. They’ve refined their knack for a hooky anthem as well, as with “Maw Maw Song,” whose barbed chorus almost sounds like a military chant.

Elsewhere however, when they stretch too far, their songs can become wearisome in a hurry. The nine minute “The Turnaround/Wolf’s Law”, aims for sophistication but ends up becoming a paltry offering despite its runtime. The fuzzbox banter of “Bats” lacks tact, and ends up drowning itself out in a blur of noise and fury; even Matt Thomas’ tireless drumwork ends up sounding lost.

Despite this streakiness, Wolf’s Law is enriched by the songs that move the band’s sound to new places. “Silent Treatment,” a sparse acoustic ballad, teases as to what Joy Formidable have the potential for if their interest were to shift to breadth instead of scale. And herein is the band’s main problem: every song carries a risk of surplus, and they seem to feel it is always better to do with than without. You can’t help but admire their ambition, but their tendency to overreach is inhibiting them from becoming the band they want and deserve to be.