Live Review: The Joy Formidable with Everything Everything at Neumos 4/2/16

Live Reviews
Jacob Webb
photos by Amber Knecht (view set)

If everything else in the world seems to be going crazy at the moment, take solace knowing that The Joy Formidable still shamelessly tour with a gong. The Welsh trio's stage presence has always been one that's far larger than whatever venue they're playing in – inside or outside – and the gong that sits behind drummer Matt Thomas has always the perfect representation of their bombast, not least because, more often than not, the band end up playing it more with their guitars and bodies than they do a mallet. Since their first major run through the festival circuit in 2011, Thomas, frontwoman Ritzy Bryan and bassist Rhydian Dafydd have essentially been a rarely-off-the-road tour de force, and on the heels of Hitch, their most wide-ranging album to date, The Joy Formidable arrived at Neumos on a Saturday night with some new moves in their playbook, but executed them all without forgetting the volume and force that makes the band such a compelling live act.

To say that Everything Everything opened the night is certainly true, but to call them an opener seems slightly inaccurate, as the kinetic Manchester quartet received a nearly as rapturous response as the headliners, at their first ever Seattle performance, no less. Well into the touring cycle for their third album, last year's Get To Heaven, the band were well-warmed up for their inaugural performance in the Emerald City, blasting through a majority of that album and two key cuts from their previous LP, 2013's also-excellent Arc, with an aplomb that belied their status on the bill. Frontman Jonathan Higgs was totally electric for his forty minutes onstage, and his bandmates weren't far behind him, all commendably locked-in, not just with each other, but with the multitude of electronics and instruments they were using to replicate the group's studio savvy onstage.

Conversely, when The Joy Formidable came on and launched into longtime set staple "The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade", they couldn't have been looser and more fluid than their onstage predecessors. Within moments of arriving onstage to the song's memorable blaring synth motif, Thomas was smashing through his crash cymbal, Dafydd was alternating between playing bass and playing Thomas's other cymbals with the headstock of his bass (and later with his hands and face), and Bryan was making sweeping, windmill-esque runs through massively distorted chords. And while they could've done the loud-briefly quiet-loud routine all night and still sent the sold-out crowd home more than happy, the group showed a considerable amount of restraint throughout the duration of the set, underlining points of tension in their songs by shifting into more atmospheric, nearly entrancing moods before timing their rises in volume with far more discretion than they have in the past.

This change in their onstage strategy is no doubt a result of their catalog taking a similar turn. Their previous album, 2013's Wolf's Law, saw the group moving not just in a quieter direction but in an altogether less predictable one, and their latest, this year's Hitch, continues that evolution. Accordingly, Dafydd spent a notable amount of time behind the keyboard, Thomas generally refrained from demolishing his drum kit, and Bryan sang more melodic and less forcefully than she ever has on "Liana", "The Last Thing On My Mind", and the other Hitch tracks. But the band's newly improved dynamics were no more evident than when Bryan and Dafydd began the encore by walking into the audience to perform "The Brook" acoustically and without microphones, a gamble that the 2011 version of the band never would've tried, much less pulled off. That's not to say that ending the main set with the always-reliable extended noise jam/equipment trashing rendition of "Whirring" – where the aforementioned gong finally comes into play and never, ever disappoints – and the encore with the nearly as grandiose "Maw Maw Song" weren't still excellent decisions, though. Unsurprisingly, The Joy Formidable still work very well when their paintbrush is eardrum-splitting volume and their canvas is pretty much any stage that they can thrash about on. As they head out on what will likely be another year or two on the live circuit, however, they've got a more dynamic and wide-ranging set to draw from than ever. (And, of course, the gong.)

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