Welsh alt-rockers The Joy Formidable have a reputation their leviathan sound. Colossal guitar riffs and drums that shower down like hellfire holds a biblical sense of purpose which, when they are in their element, is no less than apocalyptic. Unflinching in the face of noise; of the kind of wanton rage that cripples guitars and topples speakers, The Joy Formidable return with their fourth studio album, ‘AAARTH’. Following a difficult time for the band, ‘AAARTH’ is a recalibration that has breathed new life into the trio – a reaffirmation of who they are and what they love to do.
With every album, The Joy Formidable take a different approach to it than they did the last. ‘AAARTH’ is a return back to their Welsh roots, with the title itself meaning ‘bear’. Enticed by folklore and myths, the rugged, red rocks of Utah where the album was recorded inspired the underlying concept of the mystical endowments of nature. The bear is a symbol of bravery in many cultures, which is interwoven into the tapestry of rebirth that ‘AAARTH’ stands for.
We are welcomed into their world with ‘Y Bluen Eira’, a track sang entirely in hushed, conspiratorial Welsh. The overlap of not only lead vocalist Ritzy but also the backing accompaniment of bass player Rhydian sets a precedent of an album that is composed less of songs, more of incantations with its haunting quality. Hurtling drum beats whip up a storm in their typical mien, culminating in a torrent of sound at charging pace. As it recedes back, you get the sense of bereavement – you don’t want it to end. The Joy Formidable’s ace up their sleeve is and continues to be, their effortless power of immersion.
‘AAARTH’ is an excellent demonstrator of the shades, tones and styles Ritzy’s vocals can dip into at her whim. ‘All in All’, with its twinkling xylophone introduction, accentuates the hushed, lullaby-like aspect of her vocals that usually has no place in their usual herculean sound. The lurching strings and an atmospheric undercurrent of electric guitar bestow it the title of one of the most visceral, haunting tracks on the album. The Joy Formidable’s gift to create music so expansive, so cinematic is put to an entirely different use. The effect is outstanding.
What diversifies this album from its predecessors is The Joy Formidable’s courage to be unafraid to experiment. You get the impression that, without betraying their quintessential style, the band have fallen in love with making music in its purest sense: it’s a collage of sounds and styles they have fallen in love with.
‘Cicada (Land on Your Back)’, with its tumbleweed acoustic guitar, anchored by the croak of cicadas and ethereal vocals gives a nomadic accent. It’s unrestrained, like a song belonging to the summer of love. Electric drones and grooving guitarwork begin in the third act of the song, Muse-like its swagger. ‘Cicada’ (Land on Your Back)’ leads out on hand drums and ritualistic cries; every expectation you have is subverted as another instrument is added to their elixir.
‘The Better Me’ employs soaring violins that are drilled into the earth by crunching guitarwork; ‘What For’ manipulates distorted fuzz to wage a war between acoustic and electric. The piano is another instrument The Joy Formidable show a particular predilection for: ‘Go Loving’ and ‘Absence’ thrive on the delicacy the pitter-patter of the keys give them.
If you’re pining for the heavy unravelling that is The Joy Formidable’s signature, then look no further than ‘Dance of the Lotus’. The expansive reverberations in its into give way to a seismic shower of locked in drums and guitar. The only thing this track leaves to be desired is that it would be louder. ‘Dance of the Lotus’ is hypnotic and sees the band’s fangs at their most sharpened. The final track on the album ‘Caught on a Breeze’ is similarly cacophonous, instinctive and primal.
‘AAARTH’ is nomadic yet driven with direction. Rather than being lost in the wilderness, The Joy Formidable surges forward with a new raison d’être that is utterly transformative. Undoubtedly, ‘AAARTH’ is the greatest lunge forward the band have taken since their commercially acclaimed album ‘The Big Roar’. The album shows that scar tissue only makes your skin tougher.
Words by Sophie Walker.