Music writing — and the music industry in general — has a problem with hyperbole. Blame it on the publicists who issue press statements hailing the “triumphant return” of Band X after two years in the wilderness, or the writers jumping on the “mind-melting riffage” of Band Y that will turn your ears into twin volcanoes. We’ve arrived at a point when there are simply too many bands angling to be the Next Big Thing, and as a result, over-the-top descriptors have become the national currency of rock journalism.
What’s funny and a little strange about this phenomenon is that rock music itself has for years been trending in the opposite direction. The phrase “indie rock” doesn’t mean a damn thing anymore, but bands still gravitate toward it because it signifies a certain type of self-effacement, a preference for small, dingy rock clubs as opposed to sold-out arenas. It’s a phrase that lowers the stakes for what constitutes success, until eventually “Hello Cleveland!” becomes “We’re just happy to be here.”
The Joy Formidable are definitely not just happy to be here. The Welsh trio has been swimming furiously up the mainstream ever since they released 2011’s The Big Roar, an album whose scorched-earth intentions are made abundantly clear in the title. They don’t want to rock you so much as overwhelm you, and they don’t seem to know or care how silly that kind of thing sounds in today’s music climate.
In terms of sheer bombast, the trio’s “jumping the shark” moment might have come when they toured with Muse in 2012 and soaked in the first lesson of Matt Bellamy 101: Bigger is unquestionably better. They responded by stuffing their sophomore album, Wolf’s Law, with enough guitar solos, proggy interludes, and soaring choruses to make Professor Bellamy consider adding it to his syllabus. Despite the wolf and flowers on the cover, nothing about Wolf’s Law feels organic; not in the sense that the music is particularly stiff, but in the sense that the band sounds like bigger, stronger, android versions of rock stars.
Now, after a prolonged break in which they recorded a surprisingly restrained cover of the Twin Peaks theme song, The Joy Formidable are back with their third full-length (and we mean full-length) album. Clocking in at nearly 70 minutes, Hitch is a return that actually feels triumphant, press statements be damned. To record it, the band holed away in their Red Brick studio in North Wales and didn’t concern themselves with sticking to a rigid schedule. “We’ve taken our time, made something special,” frontwoman Rhiannon “Ritzy” Bryan explained to Consequence of Sound last summer, and they’ve emerged with their most audacious collection yet — an overlong but frequently thrilling trip through a different corner of the multiverse in which rock music never stopped saving the world.
The Joy Formidable haven’t exactly gotten heavier in the years since The Big Roar, but their songs have become more monolithic. Seven-minute epics such as “Whirring” and “Maw Maw Song”, once the exception to the rule, come as a standard feature on Hitch. Album opener “A Second In White” feels more like a grandiose intro than a proper song, never really taking off after spending so much of its capital on building toward a climax. It’s a track that, despite the lightning-fast guitar and tom-heavy drum attack, risks lulling the listener to sleep — or at least into complacency.
The soaring “Radio of Lips” breaks this spell pretty immediately, and it’s as if the band has suddenly gone from zero to 60 after idling the engine for a few minutes. On any other album, this song would be the balls-to-the-wall centerpiece, and it’s got everything you could possibly expect from The Joy Formidable: doubled-up vocals, doubled-up guitars, a noodly-as-hell solo, and a chorus that makes you want to karate chop through drywall.
The song earns its six-and-a-half-minute runtime, which is more than can be said of the song it eventually bleeds into. Smoky lead single “The Last Thing On My Mind” opens with roughly 30 seconds of band chatter — the kind of stuff that’s not usually meant to see the light of day outside the studio. It’s an odd downer, curiously and conspicuously sloppy, the band shoving the fact that they’re actually humans into our faces immediately after showing off their superpowers. The song is saved by Rhydian Dafydd’s impossibly catchy bass line and Bryan’s powerful vocals in the chorus, but it has to be said: The radio edit is better. (And it comes with a fair bit of eye candy, too).
In fact, most of the songs on Hitch could use a similarly judicious radio edit. “Liana” is an acoustic-tinged power ballad that doesn’t really need its explosive back half, and the pummeling riffage of “It’s Started” loses its edge by the time the synths take over to lead us out of the morass. By the time the atmospheric, Dafydd-sung interlude “The Gift” rolls around, it comes as a welcome relief, while Bryan presumably reloads her cannons and prepares for Round Two.
The back half of Hitch features plenty of muscular riffs, with “Running Hands With the Night” leading a charge that threatens to exhaust before it reaches the finish line. But there’s nuance here, too, and the band showcases a versatility that was largely absent on their first two records. You might even call it patience. Though it’s powered by a thundering drumbeat, “Fog (Black Windows)” doesn’t try to hit an arena-sized home run or pummel the listener into submission. It develops slowly, building an atmosphere that the band has often neglected in favor of big-ass riffs. Dreamy album closer “Don’t Let Me Know” exhibits a similar kind of restraint, though it still ends with an epic crescendo that approximates Mike Tyson repeatedly punching a tidal wave.
Hitch took The Joy Formidable a full year to write and record, and there’s hardly a moment when it doesn’t sound meticulously crafted. Even those tiny “organic” moments of studio chatter seem scripted to elicit a specific reaction in the listener, and therein lies the problem with this brand of outsized rock music, which sacrifices a bit of its humanity in the name of something bigger. Bryan and co. are good enough that they can sometimes have it both ways, shifting between Superman and Clark Kent within the span of a single song. Hitch finds them not just following their best and worst tendencies, but beating the listener over the head with them. It’s not the worst way to spend an hour; you just might want to carve out some time for a nap afterwards.
Essential Tracks: “Radio of Lips”, “The Last Thing On My Mind”, and “Fog (Black Windows)”