As album titles go, The Big Roar hits The Joy Formidable's nail on the head hard enough to punch through steel. That handle would've been just as appropriate for the Welsh trio's 2009 debut EP; instead, they chose the decidedly more cryptic A Balloon Called Moaning.
But with boisterous tracks like "Austere" and "Whirring," there wasn't much moaning to be found. And as big as Moaning can get, The Big Roar—the band's recent first album for Atlantic Records—manages to show up its predecessor in every possible manner, signaling an act that's broken through its obvious influences and into a sound of its own.
Joy Formidable guitarist and singer Ritzy Bryan knows only one way to express herself, and it's with the volume knob turned up as far as it can go. She sings with a guileless and prophetic awe, as if some higher power has chosen her to preach the gospel. When she strums a power chord, it's with an army of amplifiers at her back, along with the equally robust rhythm section of bassist and co-vocalist Rhydian Dafydd and drummer Matt Thomas.
It's unlikely that their spirited take on Britpop will jump-start a full-blown revival, but it's not for lack of trying. Depending on how you define it, though, Britpop never actually went away. Consider the Triangle right now, for instance: At least two of the area's most popular bands—Free Electric State and Gray Young—unabashedly trade in those sorts of sounds. In a 2010 interview with News & Observer music critic David Menconi, Free Electric State guitarist Nick Williams goes out on a very sturdy limb in discussing the stuff: "My Bloody Valentine is the best, in my opinion [...] Very cerebral. But one of our big influences that gets overlooked a lot is Swervedriver, which is first and foremost a rocking band that happened to have great, lush textures." Some might quibble, claiming MBV and Swervedriver are shoegaze bands, that they have little in common with cheap-seat-pleasing acts like Oasis and Suede and other proper "Britpop" groups. That said, there are enough similarities between those two sects that the lines between shoegaze and Britpop are (pun intended) a blur.
With The Big Roar, those lines are all but obliterated. The album melds the textures and sonics of the more artful proponents of Britpop with an unabashed love of spectacle and grandeur that would make most rock bands blush. That latter component is the newest wrinkle in Roar; nowhere is it more evident than in the treatment of an older Joy Formidable track, "Whirring." In its original state, "Whirring" was a shimmering three-minute morsel that kept its bombast and bluster at bay. But Roar's isn't nearly so modest, tacking on a four-minute coda that features the sort of double-bass-drum action one might expect from a Metallica album. The other tracks brought over from Moaning—"Austere" and "Cradle"—don't go through the same sort of drastic makeovers, but they were already larger-than-life.
For a group that wasn't lacking in confidence, kicking off their newest album with a showstopper like "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie" is still a significant statement. As its title suggests, everything about the song is epic. After a minute of burbling feedback, Bryan's pensive voice appears, offering opaque sentiments and asking vague questions. When the chorus kicks in, Bryan's meaning doesn't become much clearer—if you parse the lyrics, the song seems to be a call to arms for self-reliance. In the wake of the maelstrom, meaning becomes a secondary concern anyway.
Indeed, the sound worlds created by The Joy Formidable are meant to be experienced and felt more than explicitly understood. The Romes they build in less than three minutes, like "The Magnifying Glass," are just as ornate and beautiful as those that extend beyond the six-minute mark. Within all these layers, Bryan's voice serves as a much needed anchor, a musical element offering some guidepost so listeners don't get lost amid the torrents of guitar swirls and drum rumbles.
The Big Roar concludes with "The Greatest Light is The Greatest Shade," a track that actually kicked off the band's debut. As a new group putting its best foot forward, The Joy Formidable could do worse than this song, which features all the elements that make the trio so enjoyable. That this song now serves as a concluding statement speaks volumes about the band's confidence in what they've made. This gesture also serves as a way to close the book on this early portion of their career. Having made their U.S. major-label debut and given prospective listeners the best of what they've done so far, the future is wide open. To say The Joy Formidable has bigger things in store seems like an understatment, given how big they already sound. But a debut as assured and confident as The Big Roar is a sure sign of better things to come—Britpop, shoegaze, revivalism or whatever.