Welsh alt-rockers The Joy Formidable are riding a wave of success as they release their fifth studio album. The Mic's Caradoc Gayer explores the record and takes a deep dive 'Into the Blue'.
The Joy Formidable, comprised of singer-guitarist Rhiannon ‘Ritzy’ Bryan, bassist Rhydian Dafydd Davies, and drummer Matt Thomas, have wholeheartedly committed themselves to a fairly niche corner of alt-rock. Their sound is imbued with nostalgia for jagged Sonic-Youth-guitar riffs, and the swirling, dream-pop textures of Slowdive and Beach House. However, the authentic songwriting, the churning guitar textures, and the crashing drums, are recognisable only as The Joy Formidable. It is no mean feat to maintain such a distinctive sound over a ten-year, five album cycle, but the Joy Formidable have done it. Now, on their sixth album Into the Blue, the North Wales band have showcased their mastery of their sound.
Into the Blue might, albeit crudely, be described as a ‘covid-album’. Its production was no doubt influenced by the unique scenario that the band were thrust into during the pandemic. With Rhydian and Ritzy confined to their Utah studio, and Matt still based in the UK, the band dived into a focused period of songwriting and self-reflection. This was unlike any of their previous writing sessions, which happened while still on tour. Clearly, the atmosphere of these writing sessions is audible on the album; the lyricism is perhaps more intimate than the mythic, psychedelic tone of their last album, 2018’s AAARTH. In comparison, Into the Blue is darker. Ritzy describes being trapped in personal emotional turmoil, and of a desire to liberate oneself. The band have sometimes disadvantaged by a lack of cohesion and over-complexity in their albums. But luckily, Into the Blue’s simplicity makes it the most cohesive Joy Formidable album yet.
The title track is one of the most lyrically compelling. It was released as the first single, a suitable choice, as the lyrics ‘don’t fear the move, out of the past, let time take your hand and guide you into the blue,’ introduce the album’s themes so well. The song features a vocal duet between Ritzy and Rhydian. Ritzy confidently looks to the future; ‘You see me for what I am, I don’t have to guess anymore’. Rhydian’s verse, on the other hand, is more melancholic and reminiscent of the past; ‘I’m grateful that we felt something. We went into the blue,’ and meanwhile, the propulsive, triplet-rhythm guitar, and the rolling drums, create a rich underlying groove, while the memorable refrain ‘Just one big wave’ evokes expansive imagery.
Chimes, another single, has more urgency. The pulsing guitar riff evokes anticipation for the ‘tunnel ahead’ and the ‘white light’ that the lyrics describe. The mounting reverb in the chorus takes the imagery of ‘always running’ to stratospheric levels, until a sudden change in dynamics at the bridge. Ritzy whispers ‘You don’t have to only imagine’, against a backdrop of mysterious piano chords. These dynamic changes solidify Chimes as one of the most enthralling tracks.
Sevier is another high point. On this track, a rocketing drum groove underlies a ferocious guitar riff, that sounds like Royal Blood in the Grand Canyon. The lyrics in this track are comprised of metaphorical natural imagery that the band have used in many of their albums. However, the writing here is refreshingly straightforward for The Joy Formidable. The River Sevier that runs through Utah becomes a metaphor for breaking through personal boundaries and taking risks, by ‘chasing the Sevier’. This lyrical clarity is a welcome progression from the abstract songwriting of AAARTH.
Unfortunately, the next two tracks; Interval and Farrago feel less accessible. Interval is perhaps the most upbeat and danceable track yet, and the creative manipulation of guitars in Farrago are extremely impressive. However, both songs lack the compelling dynamic and textural evolution of the Into the Blue and Chimes. Instead, the band decide to indulge in hazes of disorientating guitar effects, without taking either song anywhere particularly interesting. On Farrago Ritzy sings ‘I’m not Farrago’, a word that refers to a confused mixture of emotions. The refrain might be more impactful had the song’s instrumentation not been as directionless and confused as it is.
Despite Farrago being something of a misadventure, on the next track Gotta Feed my Dog the band are much more successful in experimenting with their sound. The track is a fascinating, industrial rock epic, that evokes Nine Inch Nails and Korn. Interestingly enough, the lyrical content seems influenced by Ritzy’s work with the Utah animal rescue charity ‘Best Friends’. However, there is little positivity in this song: the bass guitar rumbles like a steam engine beneath Ritzy’s menacing whispered vocals; she describes a disregard for society and relationships; she prefers to spend time with her dog instead. This becomes an unsettling metaphor for being ‘on the run’. There’s also an Iron Maiden-esque tapped guitar solo that appears halfway through the song which solidifies Gotta Feed my Dog as the most exciting and unusual song on the album. Its placement also feels very natural within the track-list.
Certainly, an important strength of this album is the arrangement of the track-list. This is why the tender and quiet Somewhere New is one of the best moments of the record. Rhydian sings lead vocals on the track; backed up by cloudy, flamenco-influenced acoustic guitar work. He offers a more introverted take on these huge sonic landscapes that Ritzy’s vocals have occupied up until now. The lyrics describe a profound process of moving on in one’s life, and Rhydian’s chilling falsetto-high notes emphasise the bitter-sweetness.
However, throughout the rest of the album, one can’t help but feel that lyrical content could continue to be centre stage, like in Somewhere New. The creative guitars and glacial synthesizers of Bring it to the Front, make it a compelling listen, yet the lyrics that describe becoming part of the natural world, and discarding the trials of one’s relationships, are very similar to Sevier or Gotta Feed my Dog. There is a similar problem with the penultimate track Only Once. The fast, danceable drum rhythms of this track are a welcome evolution for the record, yet still, it lacks so much of a sonic identity, and feels slightly passionless.
However, Back to Nothing serves as an antidote to all this, as the catchy lead riff and Ritzy’s low-register vocals add smoke to the fiery guitars. The refrain ‘I won’t go back to nothing’, combines with the propulsive drums and droning bassline, to create dreamy, Slowdive-esque textures. This compelling track begins to tie up the record’s themes of making changes in your life; it could be the soundtrack to a road-trip movie.
The record concludes with Left Too Soon. Ritzy whispers, ‘this will all be past, but not before you close your eyes’, while the track evolves from a hushed acoustic guitar into a monstrous escalation. As guitars swirl in like a storm in the Utah desert, the track conveys uncertainty for the future, a feeling that ‘you have left to soon’, yet also the importance of pushing oneself out of your comfort zone, a fitting conclusion to the record.
Into the Blue is a broadly intelligent and coherent album that retains the colourful high points of AAARTH. Yet the band also make moves away from the abstract experimentalism of that record, and focuses upon mature lyrical structures, albeit maintaining their love of expansive soundscapes. At points, the record seems to lack a sense of passion and flare in this regard; it is easy to miss the improvisational guitar-work and passionate, kaleidoscopic lyrics that surged through their earlier records like The Big Roar. However, this album clearly displays how much the band have matured. They obviously have a clear creative vision for their future. Throughout this record, they emphasise the significance of recovery, self-acceptance, and looking to the future. This makes Into the Blue as compelling a record as AAARTH and a positive sign of things to come.
Written by: Caradoc Gayer
Edited by: Joe Hughes
Featured image courtesy of The Joy Formidable via Facebook. Videos courtesy of The Joy Formidable via YouTube