You have to stare at the cover of The Joy Formidable's The Big Roar for a minute to figure out what's happening in the picture. At first it looks like something going on in the ocean. Then you see the frightened people onshore, and the something going on suddenly starts to look like a giant crab monster. And their music is kind of like that. With a name like The Joy Formidable, you'd almost expect the Welsh band to produce a smart strain of candy-coated pop music. Instead, you get a smart strain of something sweet-tasting that just might kill you.
The opening track, "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie," starts off sounding like a spaceship engine full of popcorn popping. Eventually, the swelling guitar cuts through to the foreground, and when Ritzy Bryan commands your attention to wail "My love / Love is the ever-changing spectrum of a lie," you immediately want to know what else she has to say. The cacophony of sounds at the end of the song is overstretched, though, especially coming at the beginning of the record.
There's always some kind of atmospheric buzz or hum underscoring the songs, songs mostly operating on a formula that works marvelously well. They start with quiet, steady rhythm and then detonate into heavy riffs and distortion and a lot of what Rolling Stone's Will Hermes calls "face-melting." This song structure puts the musicians' prowess on display. Ritzy Bryan's voice goes from sweet to commanding quickly, and her fierce guitar shouts along with her. Drummer Matt Thomas works with purpose and urgency. The drumming resembles the fast precision of Gary Young on a good day. The Joy Formidable's music goes for the jugular in a way that couldn't be more pleasing.