During the lengthy gestation between the Joy Formidable’s formation in 2007 and their 2011 debut, The Big Roar, the Welsh trio honed an extremely effective formula of sprawling, loud-as-war rock and shimmering pop hooks. That method is largely adhered to on Wolf’s Law, and the ferocious vitality which informed the first album is still present here in flashes: “The Ladder Is Ours” strikes the same Sonic-Youth-by-way-of-Foo-Fighters pose as career highlight “Whirring,” while “Cholla” is a granite-hewn, mosh-ready barnburner.
Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns also bites hard, and after about the fourth feedback-driven wig-out in a row, Wolf’s Law becomes something of a slog. “Tendons” and “Little Blimp” are anonymous metallic chugs, while the tedious “Bats” seems to last twice as long as its four-minute duration. The best tricks and riffs from The Big Roar are culled and sewn back together to lukewarm effect, but the lack of innovation and variation is disappointing.
Luckily, the second half of the poorly paced album displays more diversity. “Silent Treatment” is a quiet hurricane of a track; despite the Joy Formidable’s gift for instrumental pyrotechnics, this seething acoustic ballad is perhaps the most furiously emotive in their repertoire. Ritzy Bryan’s great strength as a vocalist is her ability to switch effortlessly between velvet softness and sinewy strength without ever resorting to histrionics, and her restraint is rewarded in the song’s gut-wrenching resonance. “Maw Maw Song,” on the other hand, is fundamentally melodramatic: a gonzo, Zep-inspired stomp with squelching guitars and Eastern-influenced strings, and it’s all the more fun for it. “Forest Serenade” floats in on a cloud of looped vocals reminiscent of Animal Collective’s poppier moments, while the tremendous “Leopard & the Lung” makes elegant use of a glittering piano motif.
The Joy Formidable plays a certain kind of unironic, pummeling rock better than almost any other band in the world right now. But the ingenuity displayed in patches on Wolf’s Law raises the question of what the trio could achieve if only they displayed the ambition to match their obvious talent.