On their fourth album, the Welsh rockers build their towering songs on wobblier foundations for the sheer thrill of trying to make them topple.
A major-label deal may no longer be a prerequisite for breaking into the mainstream, but they still do come in handy if you want to stay there. When you think of the biggest rock bands of the past 20 years—Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Muse, the Black Keys—they all ascended to the top line of the festival poster, in part, due to the largesse of a deep-pocketed corporate imprint. And from day one, Welsh power trio and Atlantic Records hopefuls the Joy Formidable seemed poised to join them in the 50-point-font club, with their atomic fusion of Britpop-scaled anthemery and post-shoegaze overdrive. When firing on all cylinders, they could be the heaviest rock band that you would never think of classifying as metal, or the most pop-friendly act to drop the occasional blast beat.
So when the Joy Formidable split from Atlantic after two respectably charting albums, there was a more profound sense of unfinished business than with your typical major-to-indie reversion. Initially, the change in circumstance was noticeable only if you scoured their Spotify page for the label metadata fine print: the band’s 2016 album, Hitch, was streamlined and stage-ready almost to a fault. But where that album saw the band overcome an internal crisis—i.e., the end of singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan and bassist’s Rhydian Dafydd romantic relationship—their fourth record was nearly aborted by an existential one.
And so, with AAARTH, the Joy Formidable have embraced independence not just as a business-survival strategy, but as a creative-liberation philosophy, too. They still sound very much like a rock band striving for the “Top of the Pops”; only now, they want to be the strangest one on there, too. The sense of playful abandon is right there in the album’s name: the Welsh term for bear (albeit with a few extra A’s for guttural emphasis), AAARTH is the sort of title that would make major-label marketing departments wince, while requiring radio announcers to activate the phlegmiest reaches of their larynx.
Ironically, now that the Joy Formidable have resettled in the Southwest U.S., they seem more eager to assert their Welshness. AAARTH opens with a rare display of their native tongue, “Y Bluen Eira,” but the language isn’t the only thing the average Anglophone listener will find inscrutable. It’s less a song than a statement of purpose—a funhouse-mirrored portal into an album that isn’t as eager to make friends as its predecessors.
AAARTH is hardly lacking in towering rock songs, but the band builds them on wobblier foundations for the sheer thrill of trying to make them topple. The staccato-riffed standout “The Wrong Side” comes on like the introductory lurch to Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” spun off into even more over-the-top anthem: What begins as an earnest, reach-across-the-aisle plea for kindness in post-Trump America gets gradually sucked into a swirl of squirrelly guitar lines and player-piano frivolity. And while “The Better Me” could be the most fetching pure pop song this band has ever produced, it too builds into a whirling dervish of booming drum breaks, short-circuiting synths, and noisy spasms that gurgle and wheeze like gastro-intestinal indigestion.
Not every song here aspires to the same degree of inspired irreverence. While the album introduces some intriguing new looks—like the Eastern-psych strut of “Cicada (Land on Your Back)”—the Joy Formidable still have a tendency to pummel their tunes into a modern-rock mush. AAARTH sags under the weight of its less melodic, more melodramatic moments, like the nu-goth pummel of “Dance of the Lotus” or the muscular but meandering grunge-funk workout “Caught on a Breeze.” They’re the sort of songs that immediately show their hand on an album that otherwise excels at slow reveals and sonic Easter eggs. AAARTH’s most arresting moment comes in the form of “All in All,” a gentle glockenspieled ballad that gradually floats skyward until it burns up and explodes into the stratosphere. Of course, by this point, such nuclear-grade eruptions are to be expected from even the Joy Formidable’s most subdued songs. But here, we at least get a clearer view of the artfully arranged debris swirling inside the tornado.
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