When the Heart Knows that It’s Home: The Joy Formidable and “Y Garreg Ateb”

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Formed in North Wales, based in London, The Joy Formidable have been making music since the release of their first single, “Austere,” in 2008.  Since then, three albums, three EPs, and an assortment of singles and remixes have been produced.  In one respect, The Joy Formidable evoke a mythic landscape of medieval Arthurian romance, but without the vanity of the hero’s journey.  Unlike the Elizabethan minstrel folk rock of Jethro Tull, The Joy Formidable forge the sonic scope of Rush with the lyrical grandeur of King Crimson into a rare element that could only flourish on Welsh soil.  More to the point, the songs that Rhydian Davies (bass and keyboards) and Ritzy Bryan (guitar and lead vocals) write—accompanied by Matthew Thomas (drums and percussions)—belie a more ordinary but no less evocative world of human relationships.  In the latter respect, The Joy Formidable are very much a rock n roll band, singing about the affairs of the heart, complete with epic riffs that make your spirit feel like a hitherto unknown place—a valley, a glade, a lake, a meadow—has been revealed through the chords that Bryan is playing.

When I saw The Joy Formidable perform for the first time, it was on Saturday, October 29, 2016 at the Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix, Arizona.  They were opening for another band, which was inconsequential to me.  I had been waiting years to see this trio perform live, so I was there for only one thing.  I was not disappointed.  The set opened with “The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade,” from their first album The Big Roar (2011), which was also the source of the show’s finale, “Whirring.”  In-between was a selection from their second album Wolf’s Law (2013) and their recent release Hitch (2016).  However, at about the midway point, the band played “Y Garreg Ateb,” which was part of a monthly singles series that The Joy Formidable released during 2014, featuring songs sung in the Welsh language.  When Bryan introduced the song, she said it was about a place one goes to, a sacred space, in order to contemplate.

While it is tempting to characterize the Welsh songs as examples of musical nationalism or musical sovereignty—it’s easy to forget, particularly when one lives in America, that Wales is a colonized nation—the touching quality of the song feels more like an ode to the land as a source of dreams and solace than a rebellion against the English.  I say “feels” for the simple reason that, not being a Welsh speaker, I have no idea what the lyrics say.  Yet, as someone who comes from an Indigenous culture, the song brings to mind the harmony that one can only experience when they are reconnecting, through song, with a place, a land, where one truly belongs.  With this in mind, if “Y Garreg Ateb” is an example of anything, it is of how singing in a different language—Welsh, instead of English—completely alters one’s sense of being.  While the song is still recognizably The Joy Formidable, at the same time it conjures an utterly different side to the band.  It is the difference between going out into the world, where strangers and the unknown reside, and returning home, where family and friends live, the ones who know your true face.  Below is a video I recorded at the show.  Please enjoy:

Video and photo credit: David Martínez

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