Say this for The Joy Formidable’s debut effort, The Big Roar: It tells no lies and seeks no modest ambitions. Though it was more or less recorded in a bedroom, the gunshot-like drum hits at the beginning of “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie” sound crisp and clear. The fade-in of a guitar loop, followed closely by white noise, the increasing clatter of cymbal crashes, and singer Ritzy Bryan’s first verse, give a clear indication of what you’re in for with the ensuing 48 minutes. This is a Guitar Record with moments and lyrics fit for the margins of high school notebooks (iPads?).
If you’re going to do a record like this that’s so obviously earnest and desperate in trying to shoot for the rafters of venues you dreamed about since you were a kid, you’d better make sure you have either the songcraft to back it up or eye candy as a cheap gag. Luckily, The Joy Formidable need not resort to the latter. This is a big fat rock record in the vein of Muse or Ash that will find fans everywhere. In a recent South By Southwest interview, Bryan says the trio takes inspiration from rock standards and metal. With legions of guitar overdubs, Matt Thomas’ hard-hitting toms with a flair for double-bass kicks, Rhydian Dafydd’s subtle bass playing, and tinges of electronic whitewash, it’s no surprise they’ve been listening to Nirvana, Patti Smith or Bruce Springsteen for inspiration. Big names begat big sounds.
Big sounds don’t necessarily begat big success, but The Big Roar doesn’t just wallop you with guitar crunch. This group has been around for three years and though this is its first long player, two EPs and a handful of singles (led by “Austere” in August of 2008) have given them plenty of time to hone its sound and rework older versions, so while there might be more noise, you don’t miss a chorus when it punches you in the face.
Bryan’s lilting, breathy vocal is the kind of punch that you can’t help but like. She’s a kid — they all are — and it shows. She doesn’t just look doe-eyed, she sounds it, and these lines are so gloriously, stupidly naïve, that hating this album is pointless. As with everything else, The Joy Formidable do not dream small dreams, and its beckoning is irresistible to all but the coldest heart. Practically every moment is one wide grin of noise-induced, arms-aloft youth. I feel younger listening to this record. Even when Bryan sings, “Happiness, you won’t last long,” she says it with such levity that the weight of the words evaporates. The joy is absolute.
I look at this band as a flipside to the same coin The Twilight Sad are on. One is Scottish and seems content to remain there; the other is Welsh, but has moved to London. Sad versus joy, obviously. Their musical fires are both stoked by grandiose guitar moments and cymbal-powered thunder strikes past the point of excess, but while The Twilight Sad takes a darker, more introspective lyrical route that makes them feel more insular and personal, The Joy Formidable bursts brightly forth with such vigor that even the most deflating moments (“Maruyama” and “Llaw = Wall” are about the only instances of that here) feel universally hopeful.
Do I sound smitten? I am. I’m also exhausted. The Big Roar is a tiring listen with such hot mastering, wrapped up by one of the record’s best songs, “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade.” Maybe that’s me just getting old, though. When I’m listening to it, I want to share this album with everyone I know, smile at strangers on trains, move for bitchy moms on the bus, dream of sunsets and summer, clean my dishes, even do my laundry. I see a world where melodies prevent work from getting done during the day and heads bop to the cooking of pasta at night — in short, I am imbued with a purity of joy that flees the second this record is over. The Joy Formidable can’t see beyond that; they envision a world where joy is the most formidable force and pain is just a temporary chicane off the main road. “Can’t you see I’m good?” Bryan sings early on, pleading listeners to examine The Big Roar more closely. It’s an honest but unnecessary question — of course we can. You’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind to miss it.