The Joy Formidable’s proper full-length debut album was called The Big Roar and roar it did. They were all about the roar, singer/guitarist Rhiannon “Ritzy” Bryan mad like a rabid wolf, howling in the night. On the cover of their new album, Wolf’s Law, the wolf is dead and has flowers growing out of it. Yes, flowers. Pretty flowers. This could be an indication that the band has softened up. At first listen, it might even sound that way, hearing the sunburst synths that surround tracks like the propulsive opener, “This Ladder Is Ours,” and the especially melodious “Forest Serenade.” But the fact of the matter is that they remain quite ferocious below the sheen. For evidence that they haven’t lost their edge see the biting “Maw Maw Song” and the politically-charged “The Leopard and the Lung.” The latter, which is about Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai, might have a mellow dip sandwiched in the middle, but the song overall is a brute force to be reckoned with. Both of these songs are between six and seven minutes long and involve an abundance of jam-like ass-kicking perfectly directed by drummer Matthew James Thomas.
The songs up front — like the chugging, fuzzy single “Cholla” — might be immediately catchier than the latter half of the album, but it’s that second half that I’ve found more rewarding with multiple listens. “The Hurdle” is especially impressive with its double bass guitar tracks. Who the hell does that? I can’t think of the last time I heard such a thing. (Maybe on a Mr. Big record in 1992.) But, there you have it, one bass track making rhythm while the other takes the lead, dominating over the guitar. So, cheers to bassist Rhydian Dafydd on that. (Now I’ll probably get 100 tweets from people pointing out other songs with double bass guitar tracks.) But before you get to the album’s massive second half, you have to go through “Silent Treatment,” the album’s gorgeous sixth track, a percussion-less, acoustic song which is without a doubt the calm before the storm. The song might sound like the band is showing a vulnerable side — and maybe it is — but Ritzy’s tongue is razor-sharp as she sings, “I’ll take the easy cynicism, less talking, more reason.”
Produced by the band and mixed by Andy Wallace, the album has a blend of outlaw grit and synth-so-bright-it’ll-burn-your-eyes that reminds me of The Killers’ criminally under-rated second album, Sam’s Town, which I still think is their best. (If you wondered where The Killers balls went upon hearing their latest album, Battle Born, well, The Joy Formidable fucking stole them.) The album also has hints of blues rock splattered all over it, and even pale shades of country during the ominous closer “The Turnaround,” which finds Ritzy singing biting and appropriate lyrics like, “fortune turns quick and then it’s gone,” something you could say about the album itself. Oh, but don’t miss the hidden track, which happens to be the album’s title track, “Wolf’s Law,” which is based on the scientific theory by Julius Wolff which suggests that bones may become stronger in response to stress as a form of adaptation. The song begins like a gorgeous piano ballad but soon erupts like a livid volcano prepared to destroy anything within a six mile radius, which is basically how the album in whole plays out.