‘Before we started work on this album, we'd found a new sense of clarity and confidence, not only as a band, but from a personal point of view. We've healed some of our demons, not all of them, but the outcome is that we're more focused and sure of ourselves. We are ambitious, and we're certainly not apologetic for that’. Ritzy Bryan, The Joy Formidable, June 2012
2011 was a watershed year for The Joy Formidable. The trio, made up of Ritzy Bryan (lead vocals, guitars), Rhydian Dafydd (bass, backing vocals) and Matt Thomas (drums, percussion) released their debut album ‘The Big Roar’ after signing worldwide with Canvasback Music, a division of Atlantic Records, and saw their live show expand dramatically, having made good on the promise that had seen them widely talked about as one of the bands poised to break through to bigger stages and greater acclaim at the start of the year.
That the band have taken the opportunity offered with the release of their new album, ‘Wolf’s Law’ to further widen their horizons and their sound will come as no surprise to anyone already familiar with their work to date or their live show. The blueprint for their worldview had been laid out on that debut album and the live shows which accompanied it around the globe. As venue sizes increased, the band’s sound developed in tandem, songs were deconstructed and reconstructed with thrilling self-assurance, peaking in a month long tour with Foo Fighters and a run of high profile festival appearances at the likes of Glastonbury and Reading and Leeds alongside a headline slot at New York’s prestigious Terminal 5 that had The New York Times cheering on ‘an artful dissonance of style, …a gleeful riot’. On the ‘home’ side of the pond, a sold out London Forum was treated to the band’s biggest UK headline show to date which left many agreeing with an earlier NME review which noted that ‘The Joy Formidable have always sounded so much bigger than the stages they inhabit’.
‘Wolf’s Law’ is an unashamedly intricate record. Lyrically, the record touches politics of both the personal and global type, ‘The Leopard And The Lung’ focusing on Kenyan environmental activist (Wangari Maathai) while ‘Tendons’ is, according to Ritzy, ‘the closest we have ever got to a love song, albeit a very peculiar, fucking love song’. Throughout ‘Wolf’s Law’ the experience of its diverse recording locations and its influence on the thought process of its writers is tangible. With initial recording taking place in the band’s home of North Wales followed by recording the bulk of the album in a cabin in Portland, Maine in midwinter with snowstorms and drifts of up to 9 foot blocking any contact with the outside world, the extremes of the natural world were bound to play a part. The recording sessions were an enclosure described by Ritzy as like ‘being in our recording bubble with no concept of time or day and night. It gave us the solitude to concentrate fully on the album that wouldn’t have been possible elsewhere’. So it should come as no surprise that the plight of the natural world in an age of rampant consumerism and consumption should make itself felt.
Given that we are talking about The Joy Formidable, this isn’t a sloganeering album of sound bite politics but anyone who has seen the specially commissioned short film for the album’s title track (which, in an interesting twist isn’t actually on the album) will have noted that this isn’t a band devoid of opinion. For Rhydian, the very existence of their music and lyrics is the way to engage with these issues : ‘ How do you voice your frustration with an ever growing material world , with so much focus on celebrity culture , the trend of simplifying and celebrating one dimensionality because it's more marketable. For us, it's to demonstrate through our album, our art, that there are also other ways, other things that are important and be true to our vision’.
With further recording sessions in London and mixing in New York with renowned mixer Andy Wallace (Jeff Buckley, Rage Against The Machine, Nirvana) the flip side to the rural isolation of recording was the atmosphere of two of the world’s most built up commercial cities. Throughout the album the band engage lyrically with their sense that we live in a world where greed and materialism are becoming pervasive but no more so than in ‘Maw Maw Song’, a thundering piece of electronic tinged rock that replicates sonically the sense of over consumption that seems to epitomise elements of the modern world. These lyrical concerns tie into the artwork for the album, commissioned from artist Martin Wittfooth, a Canadian whose recurrent themes are the pressures of human progress on the natural world and the loss of environment in the name of progress.
The band’s reconnection with the natural world was strengthened by an increasing interest in Native American mythology and practice, an area which encompassed the art of Carl Ray and the creature legends that populate American Indian stories. Thus the album title ‘Wolf’s Law’ is both a reference to the wolf which populates Native American mythology and the medical theory that states stress on a certain body part changes and strengthens that part to cope with the stress. As a one shot of the thinking behind the record it couldn’t be closer, both adapting to new realities and finding a spiritual mindset have been part of this record.
This can be a dangerous path for the modern band, to attempt serious discourse within the confines of (in its widest sense) pop music. To their credit, the band both recognise this and dismiss it. For them, the purpose of The Joy Formidable is to both instigate thought and move heads, considerations of ‘cool’ for cool’s sake’ are far from their minds), Rhydian again: ‘To me, being cool is not about pretending, not worrying about fitting in. As a band we are not going to change ourselves for anyone. All our favourite artists are and were unique , they led the pack, they didn't try to follow. Music is a discourse, and we want to challenge people to get involved and invest, to react and feel. We want to be a catalyst.’
Given that the story of The Joy Formidable to date has been written as much on the road as off it, it is little surprise that the trio see their music as unbounded by geography. Note the internationalism of the influences on the album and the cast involved in its creation and you can see a band that are defined by their art and open to inspiration regardless of its locale. It is fitting, then, that the first steps of ‘Wolf’s Law’ will be taken in festival fields across the globe, with the band paying their first visit to the UK in August of 2012 at The Reading and Leeds Festival, no doubt to be that catalyst for the first of many UK audiences over the coming year.
As for the years to come, the band are currently on the high of achieving exactly what they set out to do with ‘Wolf’s Law’. Ritzy (rightly) notes that ‘what is expected of a guitar band can be very boring these days’, The Joy Formidable are happy to retain that tag while at the same time thinking even bigger for the future as Rhydian concludes : ‘We want to expand the sound, to always move forward, to experiment more with composition and writing both for The Joy Formidable albums and other projects but we also want to challenge ourselves to find new ways all the time. To keep the sense that everything is possible.’