Nearly 15 years is a long time to be in a band. How do you keep the creative juices flowing? Some acts find one thing they’re good at, and then keep doing it, ad infinitum. (See: Bad Religion, most pop groups.) Others make bold reinventions of their sound, casting aside the stultifying styles of the past in hopes of successfully capturing something new and vital. (Radiohead, Tegan And Sara, any number of noise acts who get tired of their distortion pedals.) But by and large, the majority of bands simply keep slowly expanding their sonic palette, while holding on to the fundamental concept that birthed them in the first place. It can make for some difficult growing pains; in the case of The Joy Formidable, a constant reckoning with the past has become an integral part of the group’s tempestuous discography. That tension comes to the fore on Into The Blue—a record that strives against measure to rediscover the magic in the band’s mix, yet continually gets caught trying to reconcile what’s come before with a desire to see it all with fresh eyes.
Throughout the 2010s, the group’s output felt like a constant struggle to transcend the instant arena-rock success of debut album The Big Roar, a near-perfect fusion of massive guitar riffs and even more massive choruses, all anchored by singer Ritzy Bryan’s joyful, triumphalist vocals, eloquent and abstract in equal measure. 2013's Wolf’s Law doubled down on the formula, a mostly successful attempt to recreate the same magic that proved the band’s debut chops were no fluke. But Hitch strayed further afield musically without adding much in return, a clear case of growing pains that never found a sturdy outlet. By 2018, however, it seemed a creative rebirth was unfolding, as Aaarth incorporated a heady stew of new influences and techniques into the band’s riff-rock bombast, resulting in an album that arguably possessed less lighters-in-the-air catharsis, but an admirable transition into a slightly different kind of band, one just as home with off-kilter grooves as four-on-the-floor anthems.
Which is what makes Into The Blue such an odd beast of a record. While there are some diverse flourishes—and two songs based in deep acoustic-guitar balladry—it’s an undeniable return to early form, albeit with the clear sensibility of a band struggling to again find the magic in the formula. “I won’t go back to nothing,” Bryan sings on “Back To Nothing,” a masterful shoegaze epic that nonetheless gives voice to the musical uncertainty captured by the album: “Let this end…there’s no meeting in the middle, now,” goes one repeated line, and it comes across for all the world like she’s addressing the band’s rejection of anything too adventurous, instead diligently drilling down on the pulsing hard-rock rhythms and riffs on which The Joy Formidable made its bones.
From song to song, the results vary significantly. The opening title track is a 3/4 stomper as solid as any they’ve yet put to tape, a quiet-loud-quiet meditation on realizing you’ve found someone or something with whom you fit. And “Chimes,” a shredding rocker, plays a game of delayed gratification, the drums starting and stopping in defiance of a simple pogo-friendly anthem, while the lyrics ruminate on growing older and trying to remember to stop and find the beauty in the everyday—a theme that gets numerous workouts, unsurprising on an album reflecting those same concerns about the band itself. But “Sevier” is a clunky, industrial-metal slice of milquetoast moodiness, edging dangerously close to Evanescence territory, and “Gotta Feed My Dog” is a failed experiment, quasi-metal riffing paired with Bryan’s whispered vocals that partake in some hoary commune-with-nature stuff: “Dip my fingers in the tree’s blood / Thank him for it and bound ahead.” It’s like Mike Patton on bad psychedelics. (The less said about acoustic clunker, “Somewhere New,” the better.)
That procession of hits and misses permeates the record, like the band was striving to take its tried-and-true methods and do something different enough to feel fresh; yet it succeeds most when the experiments are set aside in favor of simplicity and passion, not worrying about rocking hard and instead letting the shoegaze-heavy musicality come to the fore. Because Into The Blue’s efforts at churning hard rock nearly all feel like minor misfires compared to the lush, arena-ready tracks that embrace the group’s innate sense of beauty and harmonies, delivered at top volume. Perhaps that’s the lesson for a band in the midst of a small identity crisis, looking to its past to determine the future: you don’t need to kick ass and take names the same way you did a decade ago, so much as just allow yourselves the comfort of finding strength in the expertly crafted melodies, adrenaline-laced rhythms be damned. As Bryan sings on closer “Left Too Soon,” “I’m learning to see it all new again.” Hopefully, The Joy Formidable can see what works here—and forget the past.