It may be a complete coincidence that the first installment of the wildly popular video game Guitar Hero was released in Europe exactly one decade ago this year. Without a doubt many of those same kids who grew up obsessively tapping away on a plastic guitar in front of a television quickly realized they wanted more. They dropped the toy facsimiles and began to form bands, demonstrating the same compulsive focus they’d honed in living room competition, only this time on real guitars made of hardwood and plexiglass.
Whether or not The Joy Formidable’s lead guitarist and singer Rhiannon “Ritzy” Bryan was among the aforementioned converted European youth is beside the point. One listen to the Welsh alternative rock band’s latest record, Hitch, and the dexterous skill, precision, and impassioned lead guitar work demonstrated throughout this mammoth seventy-minute album proves without a doubt that for the last three years Bryan and her comrades have been meticulously crafting an alternative rock masterpiece.
More than anything else, in its overall attitude and tone, the first half of Hitch plays out like the most emboldening soundtrack for a fictitious dramatic sports film’s training montage you could ever dream of. Matthew James Thomas’ rolling, thunderous drums race in, panning from left to right whilst Rhydian Dafydd’s bass and Rhiannon Bryan’s driving guitars blaze through the record’s thrilling back-to-back openers, “A Second in White” and “Radio of Lips”. The concussive twin songs deliver a one-two punch that is simultaneously dizzying and empowering.
With its hand claps and laid-back, cool effortlessness, Hitch’s third song, “The Last Thing on My Mind”, gives Ritzy Bryan an opportunity to show off her adaptability as she sensuously sings, “when the night just gets away, when your chance gets delivered late, even when I’m out of time, you’re the last thing on my mind.” The sexy-yet-strong vocal take is reminiscent of Garbage’s Shirley Manson and Metric’s Emily Haines. Introduced with a plaintively played piano as well as a surprisingly gritty-sounding angular guitar solo halfway in, the first third of Hitch is closed out with “Liana”, a fine example of the band’s ability to shift into moodier territory without abandoning the tough as nails feeling the record has had up to this point.
The middle cluster of tracks on Hitch draw evenly from the album’s initial tracks in style and tone. The largely acoustic “The Brook” abandons Thomas’ snare entirely, opting instead for toms and crash cymbals which crescendo, adding emphasis to a crying lead guitar riff and what sounds like a subtle banjo being plucked just beneath it all. “It’s Started” returns to the pleasant pummeling delivered by the record’s openers. A fiery lead guitar boldly steps in with what may be the album’s catchiest hook.
A sharp shift in Hitch’s tone is introduced with “The Gift”. Using only synthetic horns and piano for accompaniment, Bryan momentarily steps away from the mic in order to give one of the lads an opportunity to emote. The male vocal take is heartbreakingly sincere, going so far as to include airy room noise which wisely serves to enhance the ballad’s raw honesty. The song’s last line, “so when you reach for this, I’ll be down here guiding the time to your kiss, we won’t get this gift again” is delivered just above a whisper. The guest vocalist walks out of the spotlight, allowing Bryan to step back in and deliver what may be the most moving solo you’ll hear on any album released in the first half of this year. Incredibly, it’s at this point that we’re just over the massive album’s halfway mark. As if exhaustingly reaching the top of a mountain, the band breathe, get their second wind, and begin to celebrate with exhilarating joyousness and dazzling passion the album’s second half.
A rat-a-tat snare alongside a militaristic guitar and bass combination introduce “Running Hands with the Night”. As Bryan begins singing, it’s evident the band is confidently firing on all cylinders, going into what will be the record’s finest moment, “Fog (Black Windows)”. Not only does “Fog (Black Windows)” assert itself as the strongest track on Hitch, but it just may be the grandest, most exemplary statement The Joy Formidable have made up to this point in their career. With a searing post-punk lead guitar riff snaking its way around pounding drums and eerily echoed oohs, Rhiannon Bryan begins to sing patiently without giving any indication of what’s to come. As the band gradually builds tension, Bryan’s vocals carefully follow until at last all boundaries are broken, and her gorgeous voice soars into a spectacular chorus.
As the record enters overtime, the final three songs on Hitch find the band deservedly winding down. “Underneath the Petal” is a rich acoustic ballad that features dynamic fingerpicking and flute. The rocking “Blowing Fire” is the LP’s penultimate track, and while fine, it mostly serves as a bridge between the two final ballads. “Don’t Let Me Know” is the album’s seven-and-a-half-minute epic closer, and it stitches together two distinctly different parts. The first of which finds Bryan singing sad lyrics about lost love to a gently strummed acoustic guitar. As the song reaches the three-minute mark, the acoustic strumming ends and pulsing synthesizers start up. Without warning, the trio crashes in, following the synth’s chord progression. Miraculously, Bryan’s vocals return and pick right up where she’d left off in the song’s first half. The record then ends in a suitably dramatic and satisfying fashion for a work of this length.
There’s no question whether or not The Joy Formidable knew they were delivering their strongest work to date with Hitch. Everything about this album, up to and including the commissioned Ralph Steadman logo on the cover, indicate the trio were fully aware they had a monster on their hands. Thankfully there are many months left in the year in order to digest this monumental achievement and for these twelve phenomenal tracks to find appreciative listeners who will no doubt embrace and share their thoughtful, exhilarating, and ecstatic beauty.