The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar
The ‘bosses’ issue a three line whip on this one. Of all the acts we’ve championed from cradle to rave on TMF over the past few years, there are few we’ve showered with quite so much heartfelt adoration. Vote against your party at your peril, K, the inner chamber say. No problem. Us back-benchers know when we’re beat. The ‘ayes’ have it. The Joy Formidable, via (partly) one independently released mini-album and (largely) a fearsome live capability, have had us sweating over the prospect of this, their major label debut, for some time now. Does it deliver? Yeah... but sit down for a minute, eh?
Potential: that weight of expectation that bears down on the bright young things like gravity with a hangover. We want, we need The Big Roar to be everything it can be, to come dancing out of the studio with as much cocksure splendiferousness as it can decently manage without losing too much of its dignity. Those of us who chanced upon the band, in support guise, two or three years ago, struck dumb by the spectral opening of ‘The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade’, want this debut to burn so brightly it hurts. Okay. The bad news? It doesn’t, when all said and done, stop the world. The good news? It’s occasionally excellent and dazzling, and sometimes, well, sometimes it’s not. But it’s a tremendously solid, deeply assured work and it points to a glorious future. Potential. Remember?
They have always been, on guitar/vocals and bass respectively, Ritzy Bryan and Rhyddian Daffyd (school friends, Wales, rock ‘n’ roll dreams, escape, etc); blitzkrieg drummer Matt Thomas completes the trio. For all of my reservations – few but notable - The Big Roar is alive with its own sense of self-confidence and uproarious energy. It takes a lilo to the edge of the world, screams “Wrong, Mr Columbus!” and pushes off with lunatic abandon. Far from intimate – its sheer volume and surging fury sees it largely focusing on the back row – it’s a defiantly black but wholly embraceable affair. It goes into the night but, boy, does it not go quietly. TJF’s rock solid musicality is hewn not so much from the usual materials (sweet melodies, quiet-loud, foot-tappable beats) but instead the M.O. is to disorientate, jittery zig-zags of major chord overdrive, fret-traversing riffery, pounding rhythms. With little in the way of ornamentation and whip-crack time signatures that never let you settle, The Big Roar is, at times, a bruising experience.
Often, on the pulverising ‘The Magnifying Glass’ or ‘Chapter 2’ with its scattergun harmonies and Kalashnikov delivery, the search for reference points is made easy. Picture the crushingly elementary drive of Sleater-Kinney coupled to the semi-metal muscle of Blood Red Shoes. (For an act whose superbly equipped bassist is key to their success, you’ll have to excuse me for pulling out two acts who don’t use one. I’ll ponder that one privately.) In parts, it kicks your ass so hard, you can almost imagine The Joy Formidable crossing over to the Kerrang! market.
But it's when they employ their strongest suit and catch a ride on something altogether more ethereal and elegiac, when The Big Roar lives up to its name. It’s 1989 again and the likes of 4AD and Creation are mounting a rearguard action against Madchester and the burgeoning spectre of Britpop. Where The Joy Formidable trump the likes of Lush, Ride, Slowdive - echoes of all three if you listen closely – is that they’ve transferred their live clout to their recorded work. So often the problem with the shoe-gazing crowd was that they made, frankly, albums that demonstrated a paucity of ideas beneath the approach. Not so here. When they do slow things down, broaden the production, let songs build for seven or eight minutes, they weave a spell that flattens their influences. Opener ‘The Ever Changing Spectrum of a Lie’ surfs in on an almost unbearable wave of white hot squall, exits similarly, and in between conjures magick from not much more than a pulsing throb and bar-chord abandon. 'Buoy' arrives all arabesque shimmer, an unmistakeable nod to 'Kashmir', no less. ‘The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade’ (“A view, a glass, a mirror / Which one distracts like open windows / In the gusts a calm day will come…”) closes things on a similar scale. Rhyddian, as on their mini debut, takes lead vocals on one track, ‘Llaw = Wall’, which sidles up to your leg then, when it's gained your trust, tears your throat out. (Note the Turner Prize titles. Lyrics are similarly opaque, at times so pointedly specific, I wonder if some are coded retellings of novels, maybe. Hell, accusations of pretentiousness go hang. The Joy Formidable are far from precious, always elegantly artful and it’s not like the UK indie scene needs any more blokey, trainer-shod attitude.)
But, like so many bands whose development leads to high expectations, The Big Roar confirms The Joy Formidable are not quite as magnificent as they could be, or may yet be. If this album dips midway, not helped by the inclusion of a clutch of previously recorded songs, and the likes of ‘Austere’ (always a little overrated to these ears) and ‘I Don’t Want to See You Like This’ don’t grip as tightly as its highpoints, as least a sense of an artistic vision being followed ensures your loyalty. Later in the game, when they’ve corralled their identity and honed their songwriting, they will surely go out on a limb and deliver a genre-bending masterpiece. They may well need, if they really want to step up, a signature tune that gets festival crowds and indie discos bouncing in recognition. But all that, of course, can wait a while.
Certainly you’d be hard pressed to chance upon this lot and go “Oh no – not more of this.”: The Joy Formidable have strong claims to a thrilling individuality. They are what they are. One day, they will be what they will be. Your X Factor wannabes talk about The Journey. That oft-quoted myth of young artists being given Time To Develop ? Let’s reclaim that very ideal from the corporate vampires. That The Joy Formidable have not delivered an initial masterpiece is of little or no consequence. We were there at the start, we’ll be there at the end. Those of you in search of de rigueur hyperbole can find it at the usual outlets. But The Joy Formidable are an investment, an undertaking borne of love. For those of us who really, properly care, the long haul never looked so bright and The Big Roar is a bracing start.