If ever a band inverted the idea of less is more, fully embracing the notion that bigger must mean better, it’s The Joy Formidable. Drummer Matt Thomas has a gong – yes, really – looming large behind his expansive kit, with electronic pads above it to boot, and judging by the tempestuous squall of impossibly massive opener Cholla, singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan and bassist Rhydian Dafydd have enough abused effects pedals between them to comfortably kit out several bands.
Diving into an ear-splitting Austere, dragged to its feet by muscular drumming from Thomas after a laboured start, they create the swarming, irrepressible noise that’s typical of the set and their sound, one that’s seen them garner support slots with The Foo Fighters in the US and with Muse – rock’s foremost purveyors of the overstatement – in the UK. It’s everything, all at once.
Those looking for positive signifiers elsewhere were well served for serendipity: a principally Welsh band playing on St David’s Day, the tour for second album Wolf’s Law stopping off in Wolves, Thomas’s home city. There was even a neon wolf’s head to illuminate proceedings as they charged into the juggernaut of This Ladder Is Ours, lyrics speaking of grasping opportunity, to “jump through from the past” – fitting for an unapologetic throwback to ’90s Indie (capital I), a supercharged shoegaze that’s managed to climb the musical food chain so quickly to cosy up to Dave Grohl.
Yet something was amiss on the night. With two of the best songs from the fairly average Wolf’s Law dispensed in an early salvo, it’s apparent the set is still propped up by a debut LP, one over-toured anyway, as well as being indelibly top heavy. The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade might be epic, with Thomas’s typically powerhouse drumming and Bryan’s thousand yard stare of a vocal, but it felt utterly valedictory despite being only the fourth song in. Haring out of the slips might have been a concession to an expectant Friday night crowd, yet it didn’t work – the audience remained largely reserved, just one hardy soul taking to a friend’s shoulders for Little Blimp which followed, in a venue only two thirds full.
It’s more likely that it’s autonomic now that the band’s established role is as a nailed on, honed stadium support act, well versed in bludgeoning an audience into submission in double quick time, making it back to the hotel well before News At Ten. It means that for a headline slot they struggle to keep momentum; starting big definitely makes an impression, but staying there simply gives you nowhere to go. When it’s also your main selling point, there’s a problem.
The lack of pacing is a pity, as the more reflective moments of the set then seem wonky and go unheralded – an excellent, raw reading of the acoustic Silent Treatment, a wounded song about maintaining dignity in a failing relationship, inspired semi-reverence in some, but also prompted plenty of footfall to the bar. Equally, Wolf’s Law has a sparse, delicate piano figure at its heart, and the quieter section in Forest Serenade impressed despite it bearing a passing resemblance to Whirring, their best song, which was aired in routinely spectacular fashion during a perfunctory encore, yet still only prompted sporadic abandon in the crowd.
What’s curious is that calmer moments of clarity are few and far between from a band predicated on dynamics – there’s not enough tension, no release to attack and hit home a big chorus. New material especially seems clinically engineered for stadia, at odds with the evening’s modest venue – the massive coda given to Bats fell flat, and Tendons may have been tooth-shakingly loud, but was ultimately toothless. The band sometimes even seem at odds with themselves – Thomas is forever goofing off behind the kit, the band toy with inflatable guitars plucked from the crowd and Bryan’s potty-mouth banter between songs undercuts her wide-eyed persona during them when she’s often all smiles, like a CBeebies presenter wandered into the venue and accidentally ended up fronting the band.
People clearly want to be devoted to The Joy Formidable but can’t when they themselves are caught between two stools – unsure whether this is flat out Friday night fun, or sombre and serious drama. The more they mask their uncertainty with innumerable layers of fuzz, the more tired the dynamic becomes, oversimplification a disconnect as everything’s just so routinely gaudy and oversized, a world made from Duplo. There’s something special here, but the precept of bigger being better needs to be dropped first.