A review of Wolf’s Law by The Joy Formidable
By Peter Dysart
Risk is essential to a strong and thriving creative process, but it’s also central to the survival instinct. Popular artists from any medium often find themselves pigeonholed into a single style because they fail to adapt, remodel, or grow as artists, resting their success on a single achievement, style, or technique. Unless what they’ve produced is a masterpiece that transcends the ages, more often than not these artists are simply lost to time — unless they take the risk of going too far.
In the world of popular music, where last week’s new releases compete with a never-ending stream of new releases and the din of mediocrity, these truths are even sharper and more severe. Risk is essential to survival and it’s the perfect metaphor for the latest album from The Joy Formidable, Wolf’s Law.
The Joy Formidable has steadily built their success and a dedicated fan base in the UK, Europe and the States through tireless performance, unending tours, and the promotion of their songs. First came their hit EP, A Balloon Called Moaning, and by the time they released their first full album, The Big Roar, they landed on the main stage fully conceived and prepared to storm the music scene.
But time marches quickly in the world of popular music, and yesterday’s Indie darling is today’s rubbish. Record companies usually get what they want and ignorant, shortsighted critics lie in wait to feast on with prickly-penned delight that which they previously so venerated — so quick to pass the harshest of judgments. Whilst The Joy Formidable have achieved a level of success to this point, their future success now rests on this second album, fans’ and critics’ expectations, and in reaching an even wider audience. But no pressure — this is a band that has had its sights set for some time.
Adaptation by the road
Often the creative process begins on the road, a place where glamour has no address or bearing. Songs are conceived, gestated and given birth on a tour bus stretching the distances between cities where tired bandmates fix an unbroken stare on a flat landscape. It’s in that brief time that one has the luxury of silent reflection on life’s high points or the lowest depths, where a lyric crytalises.
Or perhaps a dream is the wake up call from a roadside hotel, sending fingers stabbing in the darkness for a notepad or a voice recorder to capture the essence of a song, preserve it, and let it distill. Or as Ritzy puts it more directly, “When I’ve been up for 20 straight hours, that’s when it all happens. I think, for fuck’s sake, I gotta get out of the bath and find a notepad, pen and a guitar.” This is the true heart of musical evolution, remodeling, and adaptation of a band. Enter Wolf’s Law.
Written largely on tour and further explored and recorded at a secluded wintery Maine location sans the interference of the outside world, Wolf’s Law is the culmination of more than a year of life on the road. It’s their personal travelogue of sorts filled with life events, mythologies, metaphors, memories, mammals and native peoples, and destinations both real and imagined. It’s a creative endeavour as wide and varied musically as it is thematically, and at every interchange there are risks being taken freely.
Rhydian noted last year that one of band’s goals with this album would be “…to write songs that were both truthful and bold,” and that it would have “a feeling of being a call to arms.” It certain has those things and more. In terms of breaking new ground, this album is more diverse lyrically, rhythmically, compositionally, technologically, and from nearly any other aspect previously recorded by the band. It’s also impossibly dense like a sonic layer cake with a versatility that stretches far beyond the rock genre. Simply stated, it’s an album that requires many listens.
As for the risks taken, let’s just say the band did its level best to send worlds on a collision course; heaven and hell smash together and burn brighter than a thousand suns. What’s left is represented on this album and it’s passage into some new territory that is nothing less imaginative and nothing less than fearless.
The first two songs serve to establish the commercial appeal of the album. “This Ladder is Ours” sets the tone as one of the best displays of rock craftsmanship in some time (as I’ve recently noted in detail in another article). Credit this songwriting duo for outdoing themselves yet again. And pay close attention to the brilliant mix of Andy Wallace as we dig deeper into this layer cake. His treatments of on the vocals alone are worth the price of admission.
Where “Ladder” is an early trip to heaven, “Cholla” bursts forth from a heat baked California desert with fatted and infectious guitar riffs, sharp lyrics, explosive bass and drums, and layers of lofting vocals. It’s a powerful song that showcases this density of sound, fueled by a monstrously fuzzed out guitar riff that that nearly bleeds out from the compression on it. It’s as though a volcano were pushing up from that desert floor, propelling us into low orbit. Up to this point, Ritzy has selectively employed big riffs in favour of big chords that support vocal leads, but this album is filled with multiple instances of infectious riffs.
Lovely “Tendons” is a chameleon composition shifting effortlessly in and out of pop ballad and then into the huge dark anthem. It’s the album’s first glimpse of the previous Joy Formidable form complete with a lazy fuzz bass line, buzzing guitars, heartfelt vocals, and shifting dynamics. But it’s also an enhanced form that is far more orchestral and majestic with the addition of harp, strings, and Matt’s timpani rolls. The lyrics hold court and drive deeply, “Nothing that’s lit can be in flames this long,” and “Let your grief pour into me.”
“Little Blimp” and “Bats” shifts the album into a new level of sonic assault for this band. Little Blimp pulls listeners into more familiar territory with its filthy bass lines, marching tempos, and sweeping and diving guitars chords and riffs. The bridge sets up wonderful hook that begs for this three-minute song to go much longer. But where “Little Blimp” is more or less terra firma for fans, the next song dives head long into deeper and uncharted waters.
“Bats” captures the band at its most elevated compositional form, delivering well-modulated tempos and time signature changes and shifting rhythmic punctuation within measures. The song opens with at least three track layers of Ritz’s vocals creating an eerie harmonisation. Angular chord progressions play push-me-pull-you to a bright pulsing background before the song slowly dissolves into a beautifully ordered chaos. From the very first listen, fans will realise this is new and exciting territory for the band. Yes, you can hear a bit of Sidecar Kisses in there but only as an unformed thought (and Sidecar Kisses never had a drummer like Matt Thomas). Whilst devolving a song into chaos is nothing new (Whirring), never before have The Joy Formidable achieved such an absolute success, melding musical elements of avant-garde noise with psychedelic and prog rock into the extended jam.
As this song slides into madness, Ritzy delivers some of her most brilliant guitar work as she successfully crosses over into area typically associated with the likes of Thurston Moore, Glenn Branca, and Derek Bailey. Ritz trademark visceral playing dispenses with the typical solo in favour of an expressive style of play that is uniquely hers — a densely chaotic landscape of wild, fuzzed out flamenco-style chords, raw and nasty radial pitch shifts, and glissandos crackling with raw energy.
There are many high points to Wolf’s Law but this song in particular keeps nagging to be listened to again and again. There’s a personal darkness in these lyrics that can’t be dismissed, “We keep hanging on” is almost a resignation of sorts that leads into madness — “I had a reason but the reason went away.” It is truthful to a painful point and very bold. But perhaps the real strength of this song is the result of a perfect orchestration of all the elements: composition, lyrics, and a bombastic performance that matches the manic pitch — that and the fact that it’s dovetailed into “Silent Treatment.”
“Silent Treatment” is another departure from “the known” for some fans but it’s familiar ground to the band and any one who cares to listen to their acoustic work. Taking cues from great songwriters of past eras, Ritz and Rhydian create an acoustic bond that taps into some of the most beautiful and touching songwriting on record today. Has Ritz ever been so direct and simple with her lyrics, or so meaningful? Where Ritz’s vocals are often strikingly beautiful and emotive (“Over you”), it’s Rhydian’s alternate tuning and finger plucking that accentuates the song’s emotional depth and maturity. Genius.
“Maw Maw Song” is the riskiest and likely the most controversial song released by the band to date, verging heavily into ancient rock grooves, psychedelia, and prog rock passages that will definitely not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Filled with a massive repeating hook and buoyed by an equally massive wall of sound, “Maw Maw Song” is acerbic from end to end, spitting out lyrics that darkly taunt. Midway through this tribal stomp, Ritz unleashes a fierce, electronically overdriven guitar solo that rivals the wildest arpeggiated keyboard pitch shifts produced by the likes of Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman. The solo and outro really does have an old school vibe to it, with Matt playing ever so slightly back and loose on the beat against Rhydian’s pounding bass line. It harkens back to prog rock and acid rock sounds of long ago.
Listening to “Maw Maw” again, the memory of a conversation with Ritzy rises up regarding the band’s commitment to swapping it up (in future efforts), and not standing behind a style or genre of music. “Whether that’s an emotive or aggressive sense or something melancholy, at least you can make people feel something and get a reaction from them. Maybe people fucking hate it, but I prefer that to falling into this grey middle ground of nothingness.”
“Forest Serenade” might well be a remnant of The Big Roar with its lovely anthemic and lyrical appeal, defiant chords, and triumphant drum fills. Ritzy delivers an amazing vocal effort on this track — powerful, measured, and certain. Look for this song to become an immediate fan favourite, especially live where this will be an easy song to reproduce.
After the last two songs, “Leopard and the Lung” and “The Hurdle” might seem a little lost in the deep cuts, but both are equally rewarding. Inspired by the Kenyan activist Wangari Muta Maathai, “Leopard and the Lung” honours her life, and environmental and political works. The song is a bit of a metronomic slow burn until it the last few minutes when it comes to life.
“The Hurdle” is a buried gem. Listen to the crunch of the snow and ice underfoot outside the cabin (or is it the fallen leaves on the path to a lake) and listen the lyrics, “I lost a place I loved.” Often there are bittersweet overtones in these songs — hidden moments being revealed in triumphant crashing sound along with a sense of breaking free and a desire to return again to that place.
And then there is “The Turnaround.” Hear the angelic echoing phrases and feel the string ensemble carry you away. Then listen a minute forty into this song and try to ignore the pressure building in your stomach. Keep listening to the lyrics relentlessly flowing in waves, building the lament until the third minute when you realise you’re gutted and you fight back the tears. “You’re going to stay here with me / Stay until the last.” This is a devastating and heartbreaking song, but four minutes and thirty-five seconds of time can’t be better spent. In fact, Roy Orbison would burst at the seams over this one.
And keep listening for another four minutes…that is Wolf’s Law.
It’s hard to imagine another band attempting an album of this magnitude. Risks like those taken here don’t always produce tangible rewards; often times the results of such an undertaking can be only realised fully in time by those who take them. It’s for that reason why even harder to imagine any other band coming as close to achieving with such authenticity, that which has been laid at our feet. It does risk going too far and for that, Wolf’s Law is a wondrously complex and thoroughly rewarding journey created by three exceptionally talented and sincere folk.