Gary Raymond reviews Aaarth by The Joy Formidable, an album with a large scope, bringing together energy and riff.
Aaarth is the fourth album from The Joy Formidable, the trio originally hailing from Mold, but lately apparently much more comfortable in the open plains of Utah. The press around the release of Aaarth makes quite a lot of this American experience, suggesting the big open landscapes and brooding skies have influenced the music. And it’s true, there seems to be a bigger scope, sonically, to this record; it sounds closer to Muse in places, to those intergalactic guitar riffs, and there is a sense of the distinct echoing of the American abyss captured so poignantly in their love for stadium rock. That, for the most part works in the album’s favour.
Aaarth is a dark record – it wears its gothic sentiments in slathers rather than delicate wisps – but it is illuminated by some top class song-writing and the playing of a band clearly in its groove. The Joy Formidable, on this form, are undoubtedly the best rock band currently that Wales can claim as its own; Aaarth is record loyal to its rock roots that carries with it a consistent melodic authority. It is The Joy Formidable’s best album, and is a shining example of the “beauty of rock” – hard and soft in all the right places.
But it isalso guilty of being a little flabby around the edges – perhaps it could have done with a little bit more of that Quaker work ethic when it came to weeding out the fillers. It seems strange to level that at a band that has shaved off nearly twenty minutes from the running time of 2016’s Hitch, an album with a bit more light, but a few extra misses too. So they’re getting there.
That said, when The Joy Formidable are in that groove, they are one of the most interesting rock bands on the circuit. In the darkest moments, singer Ritzy Bryan does a good job of channelling the absolute best of rock’s great frontwomen – Siouxie Sioux, Debbie Harry, Karen O – without ever feeling like an impersonator. She is without doubt in that class, able to drag the band along when at its most indulgent and loose, and when the song writing and production has its lazy moments (“What For” is a throwaway; “You Can’t Give Me” is a bona fide Coldplay-esque dud), Bryan is there to lift it up from the banal.
Aaarth is at its best when The Joy Formidable have managed to bring together energy and riff. Single “The Wrong Side” is a full frontal anthem. The ghost of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs crops up frequently, and Aaarth has perhaps more in common with that bands glorious 2001 eponymous EP than the Show Your Bones (2006) album that moved Karen O from underground goddess to mainstream rock icon. Could Aaarth do the same for The Joy Formidable? The feeling is that such stardom has left rock behind, maybe momentarily, but current iconography pays little mind to anyone with real bite. And The Joy Formidable have bite.
The influences are all here. Led Zeppelin, Faith No More, Black Sabbath etc. But it is lazy writing to simply compare an album to what has come before. Aaarth has a sense of renewed vigour – this is a band who, after ten years and four albums, are roaring anew. The album title is a peculiar play on words; a bastardisation of the Welsh for “bear”, given a few extra vowels to symbolise some kind of primal scream, a reaction to the state of the world. The irony is that, darkness aside, Aaarth is actually a symbol of great hope, both in what rock music can continue to offer and in what Joy Formidable might continue to go on to do from here. So far they haven’t quite received the praise and riches other, lesser bands have had. Having just finished a support slot for the Foo Fighters on a recent North American tour, maybe this will be their time. Aaarth could be the record that catches wider attention – it has real moments of glory – that riff on “The Better Me” is one of those moments when a piece of music is so good you’re sure you’ve heard it somewhere before; “Absence” is one of the most beautiful barbed ballads of the year. But if Aaarth isn’t the record that signals world domination, it is because it still sounds like a band on the ascendency rather than one at the peak of their powers. We must hope now they keep putting records out regularly, and they keep making that climb.
Aaarth is available now on Hassle Records.
You might also like…
In a new series for 2019, Wales Arts Review will be asking what are the greatest albums ever produced by Welsh musical artists? A wide selection of writers will be examining their favourites. In the second entry, Gray Taylor pens a love letter to John Cale’s Paris 1919 from 1973.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.