Thursday, February 7, 2013

Album Review: Wolf's Law by The Joy Formidable

 The Joy Formidable is a band out of the UK, Whales to be precise. Formed a few years ago, they've developed a tight, compelling sound that rocks with roaring heavy riffs while incorporating quiet moments and songs for affect. But the world is full of bands like that. No, the master stroke of this band in my opinion is front woman Ritzy Bryan. Her guitar work, intensity and more importantly her vocal delivery set this band apart in my mind.

The Joy Formidable
I've been listening to TJF for a couple years now and really enjoyed their first full length album called The Big Roar. You like rock and roll? Check that out. But now, they've just released their second album and are out on tour.

The title of the new set is Wolf's Law, which is a play on words of Wolff's Law - a medical theory from the 1800s that healthy bones will adapt and strengthen to meet whatever pressure or strain they are constantly under. So in that respect, the title could be an affirmative statement about persevering through hard times to emerge stronger. But then there's also the overt idea of "wolf's law" (as in, the animal itself) evidenced by the picture of the wolf (is he dead or resting?) on the cover. And that could just be an allusion to the need to be a predator or aggressive in this world in order to survive. Anyway, a couple thoughts there on the title.

I've been listening to Wolf's Law now for a week or two. To be sure, the lyrics are challenging as Bryan sings lines that can be interpreted in many different ways. That's kinda a cool thing though about this band. The lyrics can lend themselves to multiple interpretations. I like that. In any case, I can detect some themes. Things such as repairing relationships, the power of redemption, taking leaps of faith and the middle ground gray area that many of us occupy when it comes to important relationships in our lives. Throw that together with the musical prowess of Bryan and team, and - well - you have one of the best new albums of the young year.

Here is my song-by-song review of the album, followed by some recommendations of what to get.

This Ladder Is Ours. "Lets take this walk, it's long overdue." Now this is the way to kick off an album. Get right into it with the best song and latest single right at the top. And what a slab of rock and roll this is. Don't be fooled by the first 40 seconds of quiet synth sound at the beginning. This thing kicks into high gear quickly.
Touching on reinventing oneself or repairing a challenged relationship, this song uses the idea of a ladder as a portal or passageway to a new, desired break away from the stale present. And that's all fine and good. I like it. It's compelling. But, it's the music and the vocal delivery that's the most impressive to me. Loud power chord guitars, a catchy up-and-down-the-scale melody, a fast past pace, synths at just the right place and the great voice of Ritzy Bryant are the full package - power, pop, melody, rock and roll. List and enjoy. This is the stuff. You can see the official video for the song HERE and live on Jimmy Fallon HERE (30 second commercial at the beginning courtesy of NBC.)

Cholla. "Where are we going? What are we doing?" Another monster song, the band put this one out as a single in 2012. Blasting out of the gates, the song draws you in immediately as the band deliver big guitar hooks and an interesting "wha-wha-wha" sound effect (or is it voice?) to get things rolling. Lyrically, this song is a bit of a puzzle. "Cholla" can refer to a cactus, a type of horse, a bad ass Latina gangster type...or other things like a province in South Korea or even a particular type of bread associated with the Jewish faith. Seriously. Look it up. None of these things seem to fit with the "story" of the song, however.

Setting aside the meaning of the word, in this song, TJF seem to be saying that there is a way forward to break out of a negative situation or environment by "rushing to the future to paint it." Sure, it might be hard to do, but "when nothing comes easy, only the finest are left." But the song also carries a warning that escape might be difficult to do because when "nothing is growing" then "hands turn to daggers again." Anyway, kinda obscure. But, by all means, a very nice second song from the album. Video HERE.

Tendons. "Aimless on a fated road, this life keeps us hunting 'cause I'm not home." Overall this one is a mid-paced song that initially follows a low, guttural buzzy guitar riff as its backbone and builds up from there into a more substantial tune that hits several crescendos and ultimately to to blustery ending.
Lyrically, it's a bit of a puzzler. Tendons are the things that hold all of our muscles to bone and bones to bones. Perhaps the metaphor here is that we are all like tendons. Tender but strong. Binding together. Stretching - sometimes too far until we break. And within that framework, perhaps the other lyrics about relationships and trying to fix things makes sense. I'll go with that.

Little Blimp. "Wind yourself tightly to me." Speed is back to start here with a bass line and voice leading into guitar noise that pretty much sustains a good way. Bombastic. That's the sound of this song. That, overlaid with some nifty guitar work. And what is this song about? Not sure. The words about winding together, holding on tight, never looking back down and being able to "ride this easily" may suggest jumping on an acceding blimp as metaphor for taking a leap in a relationship. In any case, in my book this fourth song makes Wolf's Law at this point four-for-four to this point.

Bats. "I had a reason, but reason went away." Starting with a aggressive choppy talk/sing intro, TJF are quickly rocking hard in this one with some heavy riffs. Think Nirvana meets Jesus and Mary Chain...or something like that. Lyrically, this thing is all over the place. The theme seems to be depleted momentum in life and what do you do with that? "The idea is the fuel for a spirited life" starts the song, but the it's "the grey coals on a dying pit" and "I had a reason, but the reason went away." Stacked up against the aggressive music, this seems to be a rant against the dying of that youthful spirit that can (and should) power us all along for as much of our lives as we can keep the fire burning.

Silent Treatment. "I'll take the easy cynicism, less talking more reason." This is the first legitimate slow, toned down song of the album. And wow, what a song. Second to "This Ladder Is Ours," this is the the star of the Wolf's Law for me. Contemplative and featuring an aching and emotive vocal from Bryan as well as some intricate acoustic guitar work...this song perhaps is about a tension filled stasis between people in a relationship. The silent treatment is the common denominator in the situation. "I over you, that's all you'll get from me" turns into "I over you, that's all you left for me." To me, this is actually a beautifully sad song - one that can hit close to home if you contemplate your own relationships (friends, family, etc.).

Maw Maw Song. "Let me show you the wilderness." Starting with, and splicing in throughout with an almost Asian melody, this song is both parts slow chunky riff and hyped rave up. You'll recognize the "maw maw" refrain in the first few seconds and in a few sections throughout when it's revisited. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what this song is about. Some stuff about "I want it all" and "this slant pulling and empty jar" just leave me confused. And, compared to some other gems on the album, this one kinda does not do it for me. But hey, give it a listen at least once for yourself.

Forest Serenade. "Don't be the hand that takes." OK now we are quickly back to "A" material. This thing brings together all that TJF is great at - big power riffs, emotionally great vocal delivery, change of pace, building pace, explosive pay offs. And sure, the lyrics are again a bit confusing, but like the best of this band's songs, it can mean what you want. Meantime, feel the music on this one and let it take you away.

The Leopard and the Lung. "Hate is going to overrun this town." A bit of stark piano and thumping bass to start this one...then layering in drum and finally a wall of guitar. Bryan then chimes in with her high voice and sings an almost lullaby first stanza before breaking into the more aggressive chorus about how "hate is going to overrun this town." The song features a few "dropout" sections in the middle that then build back up again to the now familiar riff and added guitar sound. In terms of the words on the song, the singer character appears to be addressing someone who is equal parts "destroyer" as they are a "fort" to protect from the ills and perils of the world. The singer also apparently has or had a relationship with the protagonist and a lament about that seems evident - perhaps reinforcing the destroyer part of the character's persona. Or something like that.

The Hurdle. "Do you hear that sound? The hurdle crashing down." The intro here seems to be the sound of someone walking on gravel...then the song starts. This one is structured with a catchy tune against a classic soft-loud-soft pattern punctuated with noisy choruses replete with roaring guitar riffs. Based on the intro and the lyrics, this song seems to be about remembering a remote and beautiful place that used to be refuge and someplace important to the singer and her family...but apparently is no longer. Is this a real place out in the wilderness as indicated by the words? Or, is it a more metaphorical "place?" Is it about a relationship? Not sure.

The Turnaround. "There's love here." A soft, slowish and touching tune to end the album. Featuring strings and acoustic guitar, the song is perhaps as straight forward lyrically as any on the album. It seems to be about the desire to salvage a relationship before it is too late...before the two people involved miss "the turnaround." Building slowly to a crescendo, this is a nice ending to the album proper.

Wolf's Law. "I want to go along and pretend its dawn." This is a hidden track that starts after a silence at the end of the previous song. Building from a minimal voice-only beginning, percussion and piano layer in before strings and guitar join...creating anticipation that is paid off with a controlled explosion about halfway through the song. This song invokes and slightly modifies the idea of Wolff's Law to say that people under pressure can adapt to the pressures they are put under.


These are my picks for the best songs on Wolf's Law because they showcase what The Joy Formidable are about and best at.
  • This Ladder Is Ours
  • Forest Serenade
  • Tendons
  • Silent Treatment
While perhaps not at the sublime level as the "must have" songs above, these are solid tunes that you can easily love.
  • Cholla
  • Little Blimp
  • Bats
  • Wolf's Law
With eight of 12 songs either "must have" or "good," there's little filler here. The below songs are all quite good, but if you don't want the entire album, then you could avoid these and still get the "best of" the album.
  • Maw Maw Song
  • The Turnaround
  • The Hurdle
  • The Leopard and the Lung

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