Not a lot goes down in Casco, Maine. In the winter months, this sequestered hamlet around 30 miles from Portland in the North Easternmost tip of the United States acquires a Siberian stillness as suffocating snow descends and carpets this eerily remote and reclusive region.
Yet it was to a forest just outside Casco that The Joy Formidable singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan and bassist Rhydian Dafydd retired at the start of 2012 to dream up their magnificent second album, Wolf’s Law, a record that teems with imagination, yearning and a Carpe Diem restlessness.
“It was just the two of us in this isolated spot where we hardly saw anybody else all the time we were there,” says Ritzy. “It snowed every day and the surroundings and the solitude gave us a different level of intensity.
“We had no phone signal, no wi-fi – it was fucking bliss! It is Stephen King country up there and we worried that we’d turn into The Shining and cave each other’s heads in. But it was very still, very beautiful – and in a strange way it reminded us of our home area of North Wales.”
Wolf’s Law is a driven, hugely emotive record, an alluring and attitudinal follow-up to The Joy Formidable’s keenly received 2011 debut, The Big Roar. It’s an album that was recorded in very different circumstances to its predecessor, both geographically and emotionally.
“We had a very difficult period in our personal lives making The Big Roar,” says Rhydian. “Ritzy’s parents were going through a very painful, long-drawn-out divorce and also we lost both close friends and family. We made it in very tight, enclosed studio spaces and it made it a very frustrated and aggressive record.
“With Wolf’s Law, some of the difficult personal circumstances have been resolved, so while there is still aggression there, the record is a lot more harmonious and focussed. It helped that we were completely lost in nature in Maine because it is really an album about reconnecting – with yourself, with nature and with spirituality.”
Such heavyweight and profound themes run through Wolf’s Law like a pulse. The album’s audacious reach and ambition is clear in the extraordinary film that The Joy Formidable commissioned for its title track: a breathtaking sequence of monochrome images of birth, death and the natural world.
“That track (Wolf’s Law) was always meant as an art piece, we wanted to make a visual that introduced the mood of the record. It’s a song about encouragement, reawakening hope and knowing that time is precious,” says Ritzy. “It’s very aware of its own mortality and how fleeting a moment can be.”
“It encapsulates the themes of the album,” agrees Rhydian. “It’s about how beautiful and cruel life can be and how it’s always moving, and also about seizing the moment, because life is short.”
It’s evident that the stark serenity of snowbound Casco impacted on the marrow of Wolf’s Law. Themes of the raw beauty and majesty of nature are laced throughout the album. The buzzsaw, ragged yet beautifully melodic Cholla was inspired by the giant cacti of the Joshua Tree National Park, yet also details familial breakdowns; The Leopard and the Lung was written in honour of a doughty environmentalist campaigner.
“It’s about a true hero – a Kenyan female activist, Wangari Maathai who fought against an entire corrupt establishment for nature and for women’s rights,” says Ritzy. “She was so fucking brave! Her name,Wangari, means leopard in Kukuru. She told Kenyan women to plant trees because she said that trees are the lungs of the earth.”
Yet not all of the audacious, propulsive Wolf’s Law is about such extraneous matters. Although Ritzy and Rhydian have been a couple since before the making of The Big Roar, they have never previously referenced their relationship in song. On the taut Tendons, a shimmering rock reverie powered by the martial beat of Joy Formidable drummer Matt Thomas, they courageously affix their hearts firmly to their sleeves.
“Rhydian and I were making music together before we became a couple, so we have never experienced our relationship outside of the bubble of this band,” muses Ritzy. “It can be a difficult dynamic to maintain and it sometimes makes me wonder – is our relationship based on the chaos of this band and our music, and if that were to change, where would it leave us?”
“The tendons reference is because we’re so inextricably linked,” adds Rhydian. “This band and music join us so closely together; we’re soul mates, but could it destroy us as well?”
Precarious relationships. Confessionals. Catharsis. The call of the wild. Life, birth, death and all points in-between. With such vast, profound and heartfelt themes, wrapped up in some of the most visceral and voluptuous art-rock-and-roll that has exploded since the halcyon days of the Pixies, it’s no surprise that a lot of people expect Wolf’s Law to be The Joy Formidable’s quantum-leap breakthrough album, a springboard to arena-filling status, this fiercely driven band’s tipping point into rock’s A-League.
Are they ready for this? Is it even what they want?
“If we can keep our artistic integrity,” says Ritzy, “and carry on writing songs that are important to us, and keep the thrill and the excitement of doing what we do, and carry on moving forward and evolving, and still manage to connect with an arena full of people – fuck it, that would be fantastic! But it’s not the reason why we do what we do. We won’t change to get there.”
“That’s true,” agrees Rhydian. “The point is to reach as many people as possible – but for all the right reasons.”
Their charming reticence may soon become immaterial. The Joy Formidable have made an album so colossal, so compelling that it may even put Casco, Maine on the map. If there is any justice in the world, 2013 will be the Year of the Wolf.