Sticks & Stones. The Joy Formidable, Wolf’s Law.

Sticks & Stones. The Joy Formidable, Wolf’s Law.

It’s a damn hackneyed adage, is the notion of the so-called difficult second album, and a syndrome from which many a band once suffered. I employ the past tense, as given the detrimental ways in which our ears are evolving – or perhaps rather devolving in many an instance – into orifices only capable of consuming solitary songs as opposed to cohesive LPs, the contemporary pertinence of even the very concept of the album must at once be called into question. (HMV’s recent collapse after an enduring, and ultimately exhausting battle is but one of innumerable symptoms of what I would view as an overwhelmingly negative trend.) Though as far as North Walian-via-Brixton trio The Joy Formidable may be concerned, well, Wolf’s Law arguably isn’t so much their second record as it is their kind of creative reflection 2.5, their début release A Balloon Called Moaning too extensive to be deemed an extended-play although arguably never quite long enough to be considered a full-length at just eight tracks. It was a jolting statement of intent regardless – one composed of boom, and blast, and the irrepressible bombast of Ritzy Bryan’s crackling Stratocaster, an instrument that has since been thrashed maniacally about quite sizeable stages in some of the world’s most gluttonous arenas.

It is of course something of a rarity for a band only 1/ 2 albums into its existence to be afforded the perhaps somewhat daunting task of opening up for the Foo Fighters stateside (where The Joy Formidable have themselves garnered a substantially hefty following over these past few years), and to do the same for Muse this side of things though that Bryan and long standing partner and bassist Rhydian Dafydd, along with their most recent acquisition in drummer Matt Thomas, took to such duties with the casual poise that they indeed did has seemingly only primed them for this, their 2nd/ 3rd.

Deriving its title from German surgeon Julius Wolff’s Wolff’s Law – a 19th century theorem which sets about establishing the hypothesis that bones will progress and metamorphose according to the amount of pressure and/ or stress exerted upon them – it’s a point of reference which is as obscure as it is apposite. For Wolf’s Law (album; not biological proposition) is the sound of a band only strengthening with time: growing into its skin; fleshing out its own irrefutable ability; grasping its own strengths, though unafraid to grapple with its indwelling weaknesses. Where A Balloon Called Moaning felt compellingly scatty and somehow incomplete, and The Big Roar resounded with a little too much of the echoing of past endeavours this is the laying down of the leaden gauntlet – one decorated with both the arena-mauling grandeur of their touring cronies, and the intricate hallmarks of their humble beginnings. The sound of definitive arrival.

Opener This Ladder Is Ours is but the first rung in this remarkable ascent: beginning with the surging of gently disquieting strings, it marks the trio’s breakthrough into unprecedentedly melodramatic territories. Needless to say, insatiable desires and the subsequent “ire” they ceaselessly provoke, seething passions, and so forth have always been both immediate and intrinsic to their every composition though never before have the band wielded such majesty – one that is at once both devastating and, as per, delicate. That they seamlessly glide into a typical raucous moments in – the tempest shredding the storm to have momentarily gone before it, its Greg Jardin-directed video incidentally features the trio struggling to recite the thing in an improbably almighty dust storm – only serves to demonstrate this attention to, and respect for, moderation. This is how it sounds to have everything in its right place, with the orchestral veneer but a subtle accompaniment, as opposed to extraneous embellishment. Alternatively, and as Bryan herself avows over those returning gusts of violin, “this is where everybody turns out right in the end.”

Thus they’ve patently bathed in mainstream splendours, though another intense positivity is that they’ve managed to retain that raw brutality (the roar, if you will) of earlier recordings, and recent single Cholla is decidedly of this ilk: despite featuring the wah wah’s of The Flaming Lips’ At War With The Mystics, it’s a more conventionally prickly, three-pronged attack with little, to no letup as whiplashed guitars whir demonically about a guttural rhythm section surely but mere decibels from disemboweling the tentative listener. This time taking its name from a spindly cactaceous species, their knack for fitting titles has evidently only enhanced with time, too. “Where are we going? What are we doing?” Bryan trills, a discomfiting discombobulation clinging to her every word. Realistically, it’s at this point hard to discern genuine answers to her frantic inquisitions although really, it’d be foolhardy to not hang on in there with ‘em.

From here and for the foreseeable, with a breakneck rapidity we veer off on what is a weird, if not necessarily wrong turn: Tendons features a sinewy refrain that sounds like freshly branded cattle grunting, thus breaking with self-preserved convention as Muse once did when they disappeared down that Supermassive Black Hole thing. “Tendons as we are/ Tendons stretched too far” its recurring chorus begins and for an album supposedly concerning the repair of certain unnamed relationships, we’re then left to speculate as to which it could be. By the time Bryan comes to plead: “Let yourself pour into me” in what is perhaps the most personal lyric the band have yet churned out onto tape – thereby untangling its underlying tenderness – the sentiment becomes that bit more obvious.

Though if there were feuds and keening disaffections behind the composition of the album – an album conceived, if not compiled in the back of various automobiles – then these are exposed only infrequently and, almost as though a knee-jerk reaction to this emotional bleeding, Tendons is in turn strung up by Little Blimp. Another newfangled approach, Dafydd’s weighty bass line assumes a tone that’s almost dance-punk to the bewildering point whereby it sounds vaguely redolent of The Rapture’s Echoes, or something. Though more conclusively, by now it is beginning to become increasingly apparent as to just how Americanised an effort Wolf’s Law really is – it feeds off a self-assured pomp, furiously changes its spots in schizophrenic frenzies, and as such wouldn’t be too many tracks out of place were it heard blaring from the open top of an already itself uncontrollably screechy Chevrolet Caprice, busily ripping the Nevada desert to rubbly crud.

Though one such track which probably wouldn’t quite fit in – and one which indeed feels incongruous not only within the context of this record, but with regard to their back catalogue at large – is Bats. An again heavily USAffected, this one’s an almost gothic stomp better suited to they that lionise Marilyn Manson so. You know, those wretchedly self-professed miseries who’d dangle upside down from McDonald’s golden arches in the silhouette-riddled car parks of outta town new build colossi if only they could. The fibrous kinetics of Maw Maw Song, meanwhile, witness the troupe return a little closer to home – compatriots Islet could sound like this were they to go ohio hi-fi as humorous backing vocals flutter to the manic flap of Iron Butterfly. In keeping with the creaturely theme, The Leopard And The Lung again breaks with convention, as it hinges about a sleepy, hollow, and spectral piano twinkle while the nude balladry of a vulnerable title track adds further hodge to the podge, and is as though the again ghostly farewell tossed down from a lofty balcony and forever cherished. It’s a befuddling manner in which to bow out this time around, not least as I can’t quite tell whether it’s more Magic Position or Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust though either or, it makes for an audacious way in which to sign off.

Yet all this may insinuate wholesale change which is absolutely not, or rather not absolutely the case here: the tranquil acoustic lapping of Silent Treatment recalls the lastingly affecting 9669, while Forest Serenade is about as close as they this time come to that explosive cunning to course through the pulsating Austere, or the broody pummel of Whirring. Yes, it’s been bolstered by Will Malone-ish strings and still sounds a bit shallow when set against the profound textures on offer elsewhere, though not only does Wolf’s Law comprise spice and variety, but also an exponentially increasing conviction. And with the austerity of yore traded in for a more multiplex complexion, The Joy Formidable are becoming ever more eminent authors – authors of a rulebook that is theirs for the clawing.

Released: January 21st, 2013 [Atlantic Records]

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