Joy Formidable deftly tightens everything that makes them good.
Of all the “new” indie rock bands to end up playing in arenas, the Joy Formidable are one of the few that, if only on a sonic level, purely deserves to be. Last month, arena rock wunderkinds the Foo Fighters embarked on a short North American tour, and brought the Welsh power trio with them. For the faithful, it shouldn’t be shocking that Dave Grohl felt highly enough of the band that he wanted to put them in venues befitting their sound. Since their fantastic-if-messy 2011 debut The Big Roar, they’ve been making invigorating indie rock that feels fit to exist in any space, no matter the size. While they haven’t shrugged off the “pop-aware shredders” label they earned with The Big Roar, they have spent the intervening years tightening their skill set with each passing album.
Their fourth album, AAARTH, is a continuation of that, though it doesn’t mean they aren’t still full of surprises. After a few moments of the jackhammer beat of “Y Bluen Eira (The Snowflake),” frontwoman Ritzy Bryan’s low voice drops in – and she’s singing in Welsh. While this isn’t the band’s first foray into singing in the language, it’s a disorienting move to pull as an opening track, especially because “Y Bluen Eira” is delightfully aggressive, tiptoeing close to HEALTH territory. It’s a great way to make the listener reorient themselves, with her voice buried just low enough in the mix to sit at about the same level as the rest of the music, it takes on the role of another instrument and has a somewhat hypnotic effect. They follow this closely with lead single “The Wrong Side,” truly the most pop-forward song on the album, with a chant-worthy “Come back, we’ll be lovers/ You’re on the wrong side/ On the wrong side/ On the wrong side” chorus. While it feels like it was a deliberate attempt to have a clear single on the album, it’s worth noting that this is the band’s first album on their own Seradom label, so even the presence of such a blatant, radio-friendly single is entirely understandable – especially because it’s perhaps their best since the classic “Whirring” seven years ago.
AAARTH seems to find its best moments when it wanders into territory that strips away more of the pop veneer than usual. “Go Loving” and “All in All” are each truly massive sounding songs, but both take entirely different approaches to it. The former is a pummeling experience right off the bat, but slowly builds on itself over the course of nearly three-and-a-half minutes, devoting the remaining two minutes to a triumphant wave of distorted guitar noise. “The Better Me,” by contrast, is a more pop-driven number that feels like it could have been a ‘90s alt-rock radio hit, though with way heavier guitars. Similarly, the infectious rhythm of “What For” feels like it’s destined to be a crowd favorite at the band’s already-electrified shows. There’s even room for moments of real beauty, in the case of “Absence,” a song that may polarize with its constant threat, but failure, to erupt in a wall of noise like that of “All in All,” but instead stays in a Mazzy Star-esque pool of arpeggiated pianos and washed out guitars, closer to Beach House than Sleigh Bells.
For lesser bands, it could be worrying that true, actual sonic change hasn’t happened by LP4. But the Joy Formidable are a rare act that felt like they’d already nailed their sound on the first go. This willingness to play it safe by refining, rather than expanding, is the only true quibble to be had with AAARTH: it never quite feels like it adds anything to the band’s equation. Each song may build from a different place, but outside of “Absence,” every song here does rise to inevitable skyscraping riffs in one way or another. The pop-mindedness of their earlier work was a fantastic antidote to that aspect previously, but with it absent here, the constant guitar surges can lead to sonically-induced post-adrenal fatigue.
There will come a time when they have to chart a path towards avoiding stagnation – killer guitar noise is great and everything, but you can only go so far with it. For now, it’s still inspiring to see the Joy Formidable so deftly tighten everything that makes them good – and, even better, make it look effortless. When feeling pangs for a little bit of variety within AAARTH, it’s helpful to remember that they still make loud, pop-tinged indie better than bands already headlining arenas worldwide. It’s comforting to know that their rise to that same sphere of stardom is not just inevitable, but entirely justified and well-earned.