Jan 29, 2013

Music Review: "Wolf's Law" by The Joy Formidable

By Ian Cory

Bands like The Joy Formidable are often prisoners of rock mythology. They play unabashedly bombastic and thunderous riffs through highly distorted amps, and aren’t afraid to back them up with rolling double bass drums. They are, seemingly by accident, the answer to the prayers of aging rockists waiting for bands that “really rock, you know” to come back and save the day. Or at least they would be if their songs weren’t constructed around the type of melodies and chord progressions that end up in commercials for hybrid cars and Apple products. This is by no means a knock on the band; on the contrary this mix of overstatement and understatement is what makes them such an engaging listen. The balancing act continues on their newest record, Wolf’s Law, but it’s clear that they are beginning to veer towards the dramatic.

Wolf’s Law makes its case for world domination from the very start, opening the record with a swelling string arrangement until the “real” song kicks in with a propulsive bassline and walls of processed guitars. There’s always a danger of slipping into melodrama and an inflated sense of self-importance when bands go with the orchestral overture, but thankfully The Joy Formidable don’t settle for an empty gesture. Instead, the strings show up all over the album, helping bolster many of the record’s best emotional climaxes. Rolling timpani’s introduce new sections in “Maw Maw Song”, harps glitter over the soft bridge of “Tendons”, and the orchestra shows up in full force for “The Turnaround”, a closing number fit for an Arcade Fire record. This extra instrumentation, as well as an increased interest in studio experimentation often puts The Joy Formidable in the same territory as fellow arena shoegazer M83. Enhanced arranging like this leads to some of the albums most memorable moments, like the sparkling piano and ghostly falsettos contrasting against the already strong melody of “The Leopard and The Lung”. Other times this tinkering makes it difficult to tell whether an instrument is an overly distorted synthesizer, an overly distorted guitar, or a particularly warped bass.

The Joy Formidable’s love affair with noise and bluster might help them stand out in a field of indie rock bands more interested in nuance, but it can also suffocate them. The middle of Wolf’s Law is filled with spots where the band use layer upon layer of different overdriven sounds to mask the fact that there isn’t much of a song underneath. “Little Blimp” is the worst offender on this front, mostly because its multitracked drums, clearly intended to add a dancey edge, only serve to make the song muddled and cacophonous. Even when there is a strong tune present, like on “Cholla”, extraneous and tuneless digital duck quacks distract the listener from the real content.

By growing more ambitious, The Joy Formidable have widened the gap between their peaks and their valleys, both sonically, and on the scale of quality. But it's risks like this that lead to greater rewards later. What’s most impressive is that this leap forward in production quality and experimentation came as a result of the band deciding to record the album without a producer. It’s clear that the group has a vision for where they want to take their music, and if they're allowed to follow that path to its logical conclusion they may reach new heights.

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