The title of The Big Roar functions as a concise summation of what’s to be found on the Joy Formidable’s first album, which is as bound to thunderous climaxes and strident choruses as it is to vacant, heavy distortion. The songs here are played out on big canvases, with little subtlety required, and despite tinges of haughtiness, the band makes the most of their size.
Consider opener “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie,” which lives up to its swollen title via an eight-minute running time and a go-for-broke peak, where the song slowly approaches critical mass, explodes, then tops off with a fizzy ending. Meanwhile, a track like “I Don’t Want to See You Like This” starts off loud and then modulates that volume through a series of noisy tricks, from fuzzed-out guitar solos to whispery vocal passages that function as the eye of the hurricane.
The album hews to the strictures of a major-label debut, ignoring intricacy for spectacle and lyrical complexity for simple, shout-along choruses. Yet despite its straightforwardness, The Big Roar is both a thrilling exercise in excess and a smart example of overdriven guitar pop, made even more majestic through studio-accented orchestral touches. Most of the time, it expertly walks the fine line of being loud without verging into lumbering.
The limits of this kind of scope and the volume always being set at 11, however, are clear. “A Heavy Abacus” is simultaneously too big and not ambitious enough, verging into bloated territory, giving repetitive free reign to its anthemic chorus and eventually languishing in over-applied distortion. This is followed with the similar “Whirring,” which is long, exhausting, and overstuffed, hurtling so fully into pompous excess that the song’s impact is deadened.
Despite some size issues, though, The Big Roar is a huge improvement over the band’s previous EP, A Balloon Called Moaning, which had significant identity issues, torn between the minimalism of rangy post-punk and operatic, arena-rock bluster. Here, the Joy Formidable has been backed with the recording budget to fully realize their vision. They’re a band with ideas, perhaps a little too much confidence in them, and one that’s benefitted from an album clearly assembled by expert hands.
The key to their transformation can be heard on “Austere,” which appears both on this album and the previous EP. There it was a potentially big track straining beyond its means, its birdcall hook clashing against the song’s jagged build-up. Here those two elements mesh seamlessly, wrapped into a three-minute package that may be the album’s best song. It’s the rare story of a group for whom major-label backing has resulted in a creative bloom rather than corrosion.