When The Joy Formidable released their fourth album, AAARTH, it sounded like a band reborn. Confident, experimental and full of swagger, it was one of the unexpected highlights of 2018. Three years on, we have Into The Blue, which has the unenviable task of following up AAARTH.
It mostly succeeds though – despite being written, like most records you’ll hear this year, under pandemic conditions, the Welsh trio can still create one hell of a racket. Singer and guitarist Ritzy Bryan and bassist Rhydian Dafydd were confined to Utah in the USA, while drummer Matt Thomas remained in lockdown in the UK. Yet this doesn’t make the album sound any less cohesive, with tracks like Chimes and Sevier roaring in during the record’s first half to lay down quite the marker.
That’s not to mention the title track, which opens the record – an atypically quieter and more contemplative track to lull the listener in gradually. It adds up to one hell of an introduction, with Sevier in particular being one of the most exciting things the band have recorded yet. Named after the river which snakes its way around Utah, it’s a hard, heavy rocker that makes you long for live shows to start again quickly.
As is the case with The Joy Formidable though, the band aren’t afraid to dip their toe in new waters. Gotta Feed My Dog sees Bryan switching to a soft whisper on her vocals – an effective contrast to the dark, almost industrial tones of the melody. The lyrics are dark, abstract but intriguing, with lines like “I will find you being blown like snow, ‘cos nothing settles this far away from home”. It’s a definite highlight.
Sometimes though, there’s a feeling of treading water. Somewhere New slows the album’s momentum down a bit, with its almost flamenco guitar and Dafyyd taking over lead vocals, while some of the tracks on the album’s second half seem a bit too similar to what’s come before. There are still some delights to be found – the pounding rhythm of Only Once for example – but at 50 minutes it sometimes feels like some editing could have been applied a bit more judiciously.
Yet that’s a minor criticism, as there are enough high points here to build on the success of AAARTH. The more reflective, dramatic tracks, such as the closing Left Too Soon which builds from an acoustic ballad to a full-on roar, also bodes well for their next album, whenever that may arrive. Fifteen years since they first appeared, The Joy Formidable are still as relevant and vital as ever.