If you’re around my age, you were probably in or nearly in or just barely out of junior high when Smashing Pumpkins released Siamese Dream. I still remember the way it felt listening to that band tear into “Cherub Rock” (easily among the best opening tracks of the 1990s) – it was a grandiose, endearingly pretentious song which was totally okay because I was a grandiose, possibly not-endearingly pretentious teenager. I still love Siamese Dream, even if it was probably a symptom of the egotistical excess that would later lead Billy Corgan completely over the edge into Batshit Crazytown.
Siamese Dream is on my mind at the moment because The Big Roar, the debut album by Welsh trio The Joy Formidable, reminds me so much of it. It’s a Big Rock Record at a time when Big Rock Records honestly aren’t that good. When I think of “Big Rock” nowadays, I think of Nickelback and have the sudden desire to stick pins in my ears. But The Big Roar (let me just say this about that title, by the way: to me, it strikes exactly the right balance of audacity and pretension) desperately wants – nay, it longs – to be a Big Rock Record in the way that Siamese Dream wanted to be a Big Rock Record (which is kind of the way Ten wanted to be a Big Rock Record and an Indie Grunge Record).
Given the scope of its ambition, The Big Roar is inevitably flawed. Album opener “The Ever-Changing Spectrum of a Lie” is probably four minutes too long and stuffed with so much stuff that you almost come away thinking that The Joy Formidable were worried they wouldn’t get to record another song and, in a simultaneous fit of pique and bravado, they just put every musical idea ever into seven minutes and forty-four seconds. The song itself has some great melodic moments and foreshadows an album full of a whole lot more noise than you might think three people could make. They only really overindulge like “The Ever-Changing Spectrum of a Lie” a couple more times on the album (at the end of the otherwise sublime “Whirring,” the instrumental meandering becomes almost hilarious), which is why I find myself consistently willing to forgive The Big Roar for its worst behavior.
Before we go much further, I feel like I should point out that I kind of love pretentious bands, so long as they’re the right kind of pretentious. I realize that seems like an arbitrary distinction, but bear with me a minute and I’ll see if I can clarify it a little. For me, the bad kind of pretentious is “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance. The song, apart from being a blatant Queen pastiche, tries to create a false sense of sorrow so that it can then anoint itself the anthem that helps the listener transcend said fictional sorrow. On the other hand, I think Yo La Tengo is a good kind of pretentious. Yes, some of their songs are indulgent (some are even awful; more than one of my friends has dismissed Yo La Tengo as “indie for indie’s sake,” a charge I can’t entirely dismiss), but they have a broad musical knowledge that they have channeled into a varied and often beautiful musical oeuvre. Bands that are the good kind of pretentious are bound to fail at times, but their good moments are often fucking brilliant (I guess the Flaming Lips are also a good pretentious band).
The good moments on The Big Roar are great – “Whirring” (its end notwithstanding), “I Don’t Want to See You Like This,” and closer “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade” are worth the price of admission on their own. And even the bad moments are more unnecessary than outright awful (like “Maruyama”), thanks largely to Ritzy Bryan’s zealous delivery of every line she sings. The Big Roar doesn’t just remind me of Siamese Dream because of its pretension – the sonics on this album are straight out of 1994 and I mean that in the best possible way. The vocal melodies are strong (a less forgiving critic might say “un-fucking-subtle,” but one critic’s crippling lack of subtlety is another critic’s favorite Bikini Kill record), the guitars are pretty much always distorted and generously slathered over every single song, and the drums are straight out of the Big Rock Drummer Handbook (originally written by John Bonham and then edited in later editions by Dave Grohl. For drummers of a slightly different bent, the Kickass Punk Drummer Handbook was begun by Topper Headon in the late 70s. Heroin addiction prevented him from finishing the tome so Tobi Vail and Janet Weiss completed it with authority in the 1990s. Further revision has not been required). The Joy Formidable’s sound is built to fill stadiums and I have no doubt that it will in the very near future.
So you might have guessed by now that there isn’t much original about The Joy Formidable, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. A guy fucking a microphone while shitting in a bass drum and shouting random words in a made-up language would be an original album for sure, but it almost definitely (almost – we must keep open minds here) would not be good. Plenty of good bands work within familiar tropes (the Grammy-winning Black Keys, anyone?) and I think it’s enough that The Joy Formidable does a lot to redeem the idea of arena rock.
One of my biggest problems (and I have many) with Big Rock Records is that not very many of them feature strong female vocalists (don’t say Evanescence, okay? Just don’t). The Joy Formidable has Ritzy Bryan, who is not only a great singer but also a talented guitar player (there’s nothing too flashy about her playing, but there’s some incredible textures on The Big Roar); she’s almost like a Big Rock Marissa Paternoster. I’m not saying, by the way, that the Screaming Females’ sound couldn’t fill stadiums. But I think their stuff is actually better for tearing stadiums down.
For the most part, The Joy Formidable manages to make a heady elixir out of audacity, pretension, and good, old-fashioned volume. The Big Roar is by no means a perfect album – the song titles (“Llaw = Wall,” “The Ever-Changing Spectrum of a Lie,” and so on) stretch the boundaries of tolerable pretension – but I think people who have any fond memories of 1990s alternative rock radio (I grew up with Portland’s 94.7 FM and they might be the only radio station I listen to when I make my return to the gorgeous, soggy northwest) will find a lot to love here.