Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Ritzy Bryan, frontwoman of Welsh noise-pop band The Joy Formidable found herself gazing out her Utah studio window.
“I have a lovely view out the window, and I always find a lot of peace in the nature of where I live,” Bryan said in a phone call earlier this summer. As someone who likes to debrief from the “exciting, yet chaotic nature of life on the road,” she said she tries to enjoy the simple things in life. But what she thought would be a moment of tranquility quickly devolved into something else entirely.
“You’ve got this angelic blonde 5-year-old walking along the little path by the side of my house, who looks for a moment, like a flush of innocence in this beautiful natural scene, then all of a sudden, the child begins to throw rocks, trying to stone the rabbits to death,” Bryan said. “I’m, like, ‘what the hell’s going on!’”
Metaphoric for the seismic, political shift that had just taken place, the jarring spectacle through the glass provided the angry but inspirited mood board for “The Wrong Side,” the lead single off The Joy Formidable’s upcoming record, AAARTH. “And the voices from the past/ They say the future will be kinder/ They’re living all our memories/ Some of us need reminding/ Glad I didn’t stay back in a bitter embrace/ There’s a fire that needs putting out/ With the sun on our faces,” Bryan sings on the track.
The Joy Formidable, which includes Rhydian Dafydd and Matthew Thomas, have created a collage of sociopolitical turmoil from songs like “The Wrong Side.”
“The song is very piece-mealed from observations around the time [of] the results,” Bryan said. “I definitely was trying to touch on the lacking sense of compassion of people these days.”
The outcome puzzled Bryan as much as the next person.
“Well fucking hell, what just happened!” Bryan thought at the time. As disbelief dissipated into reality, she got clarity. Like the little girl throwing rocks at rabbits, society had suddenly lost touch with its sense of benevolence and ability to empathize.
“The administration in the States is fucking with people’s ability to be kind and compassionate,” Bryan said. “They feed off people’s fear and intolerance instead of kindness, love and empathy.”
While AAARTH is, on one hand, a candid capture of the current sociopolitical environment, it’s a righteous liberation of pent-up anger, which is indicative of the album’s striking title. Arth is Welsh for “bear.”
“It’s a symbol of strength and perseverance,” she said.
The extra vowels emphasize a release of emotion, something between “a bit of a scream or shriek, I suppose it’s like, “AHHHHH,” she explained.
Many will deem AAARTH as a pseudo-political reaction. Bryan believes that even though it’s a result of what’s going on in the world, it’s important to not overwhelm yourself with the world’s negativity.
“We’ve all got an obligation as individuals to be watching and listening and taking an interest, and not be apathetic,” she said.
With the band’s latest project grabbing the unraveling world by the horns, Bryan, Thomas and Dafydd also wrestle with very personal matters and connect them something universal. According to Bryan, there were moments where it seemed logical to take a healthy step back from making music, considering “the stresses that go with the peripheral bullshit of making an album—the financial element and whatnot.” While The Joy Formidable’s struggle as an independent band is its own, it’s a resonant obstacle faced by all musicians in the streaming era.
As AAARTH bridges the gap between the personal and universal, a collage manifests with varying bits and pieces of turbulent emotion. Whether it is anger, disdain or even determination, all of it is emancipated for the sake of coping and exorcising demons.
The political environment is not the only thing informing The Joy Formidable’s new direction. In fact, the band’s natural surroundings bled deeply into the atmospheric approach of AAARTH. Six years ago, Bryan moved to Utah after embarking on a “spontaneously cliched” road trip with her mom. The two drove around in a convertible, enjoying the Southwest.
“It’s the most striking difference between here and somewhere like Wales,” Bryan said. Despite the natural, raw beauty of Wales, she saw something different in the American Southwest. “It’s a very colorful landscape, especially where I live, because we still get the lush greenery of Wales, but against blue skies and very red rocks and sand.”
The brilliance of their surroundings inspired their imaginations. While making AAARTH, The Joy Formidable balanced long nights in the studio with long walks through colorful canyons, along cliffsides and searching for petroglyphs.
“I feel like embracing the natural world is a big part of who we are,” Bryan said.
AAARTH captures an organic immensity that echoes the sensation of standing at the edge of a cliff. With layers upon layers of fuzzed-out guitar propelling an almost hypnotic ambiance, the record connects the natural with the electronic. On “Dance of the Lotus,” howling guitar reverb, searing keys and primal percussion form an intoxicating and intimidating haze through nighttime desert landscapes. Emerging from the nocturnal feedback, Bryan’s voice wreaks havoc with a ferocious vocal delivery and unleashes a desire to connect with her surroundings: “Don’t wait up I’m waiting for the sound of night/ Don’t wake up, oh I just need this time/ Alone with the sky that forgives me silently.”
“I always thought it was pretty wild where I grew up, but here, you can get fucking lost and alone,” Bryan said. “You could seriously go off the grid; it’s like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.”
With their surroundings enlightening The Joy Formidable in its creation process, the record bursts with ecstasy and provides a reprieve to the world as it continues to toil in shambles. While the record was birthed from negativity, the band managed to subvert its own expectations, coming out of the ordeal “feeling vivacious and excited again about this music we love.”
Follow writer Kyle Kohner at Twitter.com/kylejkohner.