**1/2 (out of four)
Ask a handful of your friends what they think of The Joy Formidable, and there’s a good chance at least one of them will respond with a glisten in their eyes, recounting the time they just happened to come across the Welsh trio’s debut album “The Big Roar” from 2011 and fell head over heels in love with the dramatics of it all. Or the time they stumbled upon their set at a festival--caught them as the opening act for Foo Fighters' epic surprise Lollapalooza pre-show at Metro, perhaps?--exclaimed “Who ARE these guys?!” and indoctrinated themselves into the overnight fanboy club for the young band.
Now, we have the much-anticipated follow-up, “Wolf’s Law.” The album references the “Wolff’s Law” theory on the animal or human bone’s ability to adapt and strengthen under stress. It’s cute and seems promising for a band to actually acknowledge just how much is riding on this sophomore effort, which has a lot to live up to when you consider how universally loved and epic its predecessor is. But in this case, it may have unfortunately backfired a bit.
Though tracks like “Bats” and “Cholla” come close, not much on “Wolf’s Law” rises above a head-nodding reaction. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, when you produce a debut like "The Big Roar" that more than lives up to its name, anything less than a “medium roar” is not going to bode well with your newfound groupies.
The attitude and tone of “Wolf’s Law” is set up quite nicely by the strikingly optimistic opener “This Ladder is Ours” with its catchy chorus and therapeutic lyrics (“Let’s sit and talk and slow things down. / Just be our old selves again, finally”). But this is also where you become a bit cautious that this new Joy is not exactly what you’ve been hoping for. Where are the dank and dirty guitars? The crushing, heart-pounding bass thumps and drum assaults?
We get a little in “Cholla,” the first single, but it all gets a little too...hopeful. It builds a little, then a little more (“Where are we doing? What are we doing?”) then comes back down to earth just before we’ve gotten enough to make the sort of impact we’ve become accustomed to with life-shattering tracks like “Whirring” from “The Big Roar.” Lines from “Cholla” sound eerily like a tease of how we’re going to feel for the next 30 minutes: “How do we move on? Nothing is growing.” We never quite get to that sweet spot that “The Big Roar” hit--a lot.
Even the darkest track on the album, “Bats,” the closest we really get to a “Big Roar”-esque aesthetic is just a little too neat and tidy with none of the range or gritty tension we’ve heard before from Ritzy Bryan’s vocals brushing up against squealing guitars and bombastic drums. The driving, minute-long guitar solo at the end, however, seems to make up for it, especially when compared to the one that closes out “Maw Maw Song.” Not only does the chorus consist of the band literally singing “maaw maaw maw maw maw maw maaaaw” along with the guitar--much more annoying than you’d expect it to be--but the slight progress the song makes in building some excitement is totally squashed by a lackluster, ‘70s-rock-esque guitar medley at the end. Is it irony that the band sings “You want it all, I know you do,” while this is all taking place? Cold.
Upon subsequent listens, though, it’s easier to appreciate just how well the band tackles this new territory--even if we don’t exactly approve of new said territory--on danceable anthems like “Little Blimp” and on the hopelessly melodic tracks on the second half of the album that showcase just how blended the group has managed to make their new sound. Bryan flexes her vocal muscles on the movie-soundtrack-worthy “Forest Serenade” that winds down with a classic Joy Formidable drum send-off and serves as a timely lead-in to the pulsating opener of “Leopard and the Lung.” Forget that this is the band that produced shit-kicking, eery drivers like “The Everchanging Spectrum of Life” two years ago and you can see just how advanced much of the album really is.
“Wolf’s Law” is a shining example of a solid follow-up from a band that hit the ground running so furiously on a debut that it left them with no other choice but to slow down the train, change direction a bit and wander into uncharted territory. The sound is mature. The album is a much more palatable blend of easy listening pop-rock. The band is growing up, dude. And while that should be recognized and appreciated, that doesn’t necessarily mean we all have to like it.
In concert: April 2 at The Vic
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