The Joy Formidable at the 9:30 Club

British rockers the Joy Formidable perform at the 9:30 Club in DC. Photo: The Joy Formidable

WASHINGTON, May 15, 2013 — The Joy Formidable are one huge band. This is not necessarily a commentary on how popular they are or how many records they have sold. After all, they do have an enthusiastic fan following, as evidenced by their recent sellout performance at DC’s 9:30 Club.

But when a band is “huge” in the way the Joy Formidable is, it most importantly means that their sound carries an immense weight. This is especially true when the band plays live as they did here and in a way that managed to make everything seem bigger and bigger as the night progressed.

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This Welsh band consists of childhood friends Ritzy Bryan and Rhydian Dafydd on guitar and bass, respectively, and Matthew James rounding out the trio on drums. Their main musical focus is Shoegazing or, rather, a modernization of that genre.

Using guitar distortion and special effects with considerable skill, they are able take the aural “wall of sound” concept to its absolute physical limit, filling a venue with a sound that is like a cascade of noise crashing down craggy sonic cliffs of even greater noise.

This sensation can be mesmerizing, engrossing and very nearly hypnotic. It is entirely possible for the audience to get lost listening to the overplay of fuzz rolling forth via Joy Formidable’s sound. The distortion gets pushed further and further during the progression of each song as well as throughout the set as a whole.

The feeling is almost like falling down a deep, dark pit, tumbling over and over again without really knowing which way is up anymore. There is nothing calm or measured about the way the Joy Formidable plays. Ironically, however, at the same time it can be soothing in an oddly jarring way.

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Like the best Shoegazer bands of past, the Joy Formidable are spare and angular, somehow managing to create the presence of a mass of whirling guitars while still only a three-piece band. Despite working from the Shoegazer template, though, there are a number of things that set this band apart from the Shoegazing bands of the past.

Shoegazers were known for their tendency toward the tunelessness and formlessness. Rather, they were most focused on the tactic of using distortion to amplify the effect of noise in order to bludgeon the audience. As a result, they had trouble expanding and differentiating their sound over time.

Fortunately, this is not a problem for the Joy Formidable, which seems to be constantly expanding even within a single set of songs. Despite drawing heavily from the Shoegazing bands of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, they elaborate on that original concept by injecting a large dose of pop sensibilities and arena rock aesthetics into their sound.

Melody for those earlier bands was more implied than explicit. But with the Joy Formidable, melody is very much pushed to the forefront of their overwhelming sound.

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They build their songs on fairly noticeable, and most of time catchy guitar riffs, then they keep adding nifty touches like various unusual effects and some very interesting vocal harmonies between Bryan and Dafydd. 

What really separates the Joy Formidable from other similar bands is the extent to which they push their vocals. Instead of letting the vocals fade into the background and become just another layer of added fuzz to fit along with those swirling guitars, Joy Formidable puts an extra focus on Ritzy Bryan and on occasion Rhydian Daffyd as vocalists front and center.

Bryan has an unusual, deep pixie-like voice, which is then electronically distorted to some extent. If her voice were not so forceful, it would almost feel like a background hum. Instead, it builds up and surfs on the wave of sound the band rushes at the audience.

There are a great many layers to peel back when it comes to discussing the Joy Formidable’s live set. They launch with a hint of distortion, adding more pop melodies and vocal harmonies as they go along.

After an hour of performing, the Joy Formidable has built up to an enormous sonic output, and it becomes genuinely addictive trying figure out exactly what the next significant wave of their sound is going to be. They are able to pile on a seemingly endless series of concepts and ideas into a package to create something that is enjoyably overwhelming. And that’s what makes them unique.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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