That The Joy Formidable quickly found themselves making the transition from fleapit clubs to major festival stages and supporting Muse on tour is no surprise. Their debut album packed in big choruses and huge guitar riffs that clearly had lofty aspirations. What made The Big Roar such a success however was the bite and aggressive edge that is somewhat lacking on their second effort.
Wolf’s Law is an album that clearly has been influenced by The Joy Formidable’s time on the big stage. Everything is engineered to sound massive, even the ballads. It is polished to such a degree that it loses the edge that made the band’s earlier work so exciting. The main victim seems to be Ritzy Bryans’ guitar sound, which sounds so compressed that it fails to rip out of the speakers. It needs room to breathe, so whilst it might well sound perfectly fine banging out of a gigantic PA in a field, within the confines of a mere stereo system it is little more than a slightly dirty whisper.
Wolf’s Law starts promisingly, with This Ladder Is Ours and Cholla, two songs that showcase just what The Joy Formidable are so good at. The urgent riffing of This Ladder Is Ours possesses the fire of old and coupled with a nicely worked string section during the more introspective sections, it’s hard not to be impressed with the band’s ambition. Ultimately it succeeds thanks to Ritzy’s wonderfully pitched vocals which, as usual, coil themselves around the melodies perfectly. Cholla follows and fits the loud/quiet template nicely. The chorus, showing off the band’s habit of taking classic pop and retooling it for a rock audience, simply can’t fail. Yet there’s a warning in the chant of “where are we going?” because it would appear that after this early high point, the band ran out of ideas.
Tendons sounds as if has been thrown in to make up the numbers; even the layered strings can’t save it from mediocrity. Little Blimp kicks off with a bass riff that flies a little too close to funk rock and although the following explosive riffing is momentarily pleasing, it doesn’t do enough to maintain interest. Huge it may be, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that Little Blimp is an over-inflated, hollow experience. Bats fares a little better as it fuzzes things up and goes for the jugular, but lacks sharpened teeth.
Fortunately there’s some respite to be found in the tinkling acoustic ballad of Silent Treatment. It’s here that The Joy Formidable’s songwriting is allowed to breathe. There’s room for Ritzy’s vocals to hit home, and with some careful application of reverb, it becomes an intimate moment. It’s a necessary touch, because it’s at this point that the band finally attempt to connect to their audience rather than bludgeon it to death sonically. It might just be the finest song on the album.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Wolf’s Law is the closing two tracks. The Turnaround sees the band heading into uncharted territory with a ballad based around a sweeping string section that quickly become colossal. By the close, you can imagine Ritzy emoting on a mountain side backed by the London Philharmonic. It is, at least, a change of pace. Wolf’s Law also breaks from type, and perhaps hints at where the band is headed as they appear to be exploring the possibility of scoring a heart rending West End musical.
This is not a bad album, but one that finds The Joy Formidable at a crossroads of indecision. It’s a confused collection of songs, but there are enough gems here to suggest that they’ll come good soon enough.