New Release, The Joy Formidable, ‘AAARTH’

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The Joy Formidable have quietly been building a reputation since their first release almost a decade ago, 2009’s A Balloon Called Moaning EP. Hailing from the small town of Mold (really) in North Wales, they brought their combination of blues-driven, straight-from-the-gut and off-kilter indie rock to SF’s The Independent on Friday.

The show was scheduled as part of their North American tour in support of their new album AAARTH, which manages somehow to contain both poetry (the title is in the ancient Welsh language), surrealism (the Welsh word ‘arth’ means ‘bear’) and slapstick (add three A’s to the beginning of anything and put it in capital letters, and it’s definitely not po-faced).

As a show, last week’s appearance at The Independent was special. Coming after a leveling-up experience opening for true behemoths Foo Fighters on their arena tour of the northwest and western Canada, and a European festival tour, the show followed AAARTH’s release in September; and who wouldn’t want to land on the west coast after that?

AAARTH is one hell of a record to tour behind. Recorded in a global mash-up somewhere between North Wales and the multicolored canyons of Utah, the album feels something like an ambush, as all the best rock albums do; reminding you that there’s always life in the old dog yet.

Stuttery, woozy, driving monotones open the album, as “Y Bluen Eira” (Welsh for ‘snowflake’) refuses to concede that you need to choose between riffs and weirdness; a collision of pop, guitar, and power vocals that sound like Chvrches with the day-glo paint sandblasted away, the song is a great opener. Rhiannon Bryan has never been closer to being the commanding, snarling, answer to all rock’s prayers – you can hear her ruling the stage even on a studio record.

Next, “The Wrong Side” fools you into thinking it’s time for some straight-up rock – and makes a great, riff-laden stomp out of it – before “Go Loving” finds the accelerator pedal to send you flying out over those rainbow canyons, borne aloft by gently reverbing piano.

“Cicada” puts you in the desert, back on a woozy vibe, all bending strings and buzzing bass, and then “All in All” promises a delicate, icy ballad, belying the fire that’s to come as the song builds and builds and builds; tenderness explodes into fury, driven by drummer Matthew Thomas’ furious biceps. After that, the epic bloom of “What For” is made palpably for great headphones or car stereos on late-fall drives down the coast, and “The Better Me” keeps the album’s habit of not letting any single sample or motif get comfortable before leaving a pitch-bent impression on the ears, leaving the palate cleansed for the almost Scandi-pop delicacy of “Absence,” given weight by the fact that Bryan palpably means every word.

“Dance of the Lotus” actually manages to sound like a flower dancing and a great, soaring, stadium-ready piece of bombast at one and the same time, and on its heels comes “You Can’t Give Me,” where bassist Rhydian Dafydd powers what could have been a middling song into something insistent and somehow aching. Album closer “Caught on a Breeze” gives us another sound entirely: more flurrying bass plays off synth-soaked guitar riffs; the sound of a band refusing to let you forget what they can do before you go.

AAARTH is an effective but odd animal: in an age where rock often fails to set the agenda, it feels like a good step forward in the ongoing argument between rock and pop; by taking both of its genres seriously, The Joy Formidable make something that sounds new and exists stubbornly on its own terms.

Photo courtesy of the Press House

An avid drummer whose discography includes albums on Digital Nations (a Steve Vai imprint), music critic Louis Raphael has always kept a pulse on the San Francisco music scene. After many years as the San Francisco Music Examiner for Examiner.com and AXS.com, he decided to start Music in SF® as a way to showcase what the San Francisco music scene really has to offer.

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