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Review: The Joy Formidable at The Bluebird

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The Bluebird in Bloomington turned into a showcase in noise rock last night as Welsh trio The Joy Formidable, along with A Place to Bury Strangers and Exitmusic, took turns immersing those in attendance in waves of distortion, ferocious feedback and reverberating ambiance.

Having recently played at The Vogue in December, this concert marked the second time the Joy Formidable played in the Hoosier state in three months. Of both gigs, last night's was more confident, powerful, and playful. Their sound, an engulfing swirl of permeating fuzz, chest-thumping bass, steady drumming and powerful pop hooks, pervaded throughout the venue and allowed the band to bask in their music just as much as the audience did.

The Joy Formidable took the stage in a slightly nautical fashion as they assembled themselves with a replica lighthouse beaming in the background as the sound of a roaring tide groaned ominously: fitting, since their debut album is called The Big Roar. From there they began their set with a one-two-three punch in the form of "A Heavy Abacus," "I Don't Want to See You Like This," and "Cradle."

Most of the band's music follows a rather Nirvana-esque formula with a soft vs. loud dynamic. Doe-eyed vocalist/guitarist Ritzy Bryan fills up the empty spaces in the band's sleepy verses with her bright English timbre. But as soon as the motorized choruses kick in, she trades in vulnerability for showmanship. Her fingers zip up and down her guitar as a barrage of octave chords fight for space with Matt Thomas's steadfast drumming and bassist Rhydian Dafydd's underlying current of sludge.

The rest of the band's set was mostly comprised of their longer, more progressive songs. The finale, "Whirring," had its closing moments become stretched and destructive as Bryan threw down her battered guitar and began incessantly banging on a giant gong situated toward the rear of the stage. "Love is the Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie," a song as long as its title, seemed slightly clunky in parts due to the band's infrequent performances of it.

But the most revealing moment came when they briefly walked away from their gargantuan sound and chose to play "Silent Treatment," a soft, echoing ballad of their yet-to-be-released second album. An acoustic guitar was the only instrument heard, as Dafydds plucked a soft melody while Bryan, with no guitar to hide behind, seemed just as captivated in serenity as she did in controlled chaos.

Exitmusic and A Place to Bury Strangers, each New York-based bands signed to Bloomington labels Secretly Canadian and Dead Oceans respectively, sat on opposite ends of the noise-rock spectrum. Exitmusic, made up of husband-and-wife duo Aleska Palladino and Devon Church, make meditative music which hovers and haunts as much as it distances and detaches. But where their music borders on stagnation on record, it breathes easier live, where Palladino's voice has more room to move and find space inside the band's spacious sound and makes a song like "The Hours" hypnotizing.

A Place to Bury Strangers's set was an example in noise rock turned art rock turned tedious. Where their first two songs, "So Far Away" and "Nothing Will Surprise Me" were punchy and precise, their music slowly devolved into spineless experimentation, where one indistinguishable song bled into another indistinguishable song. They may get extra credit from their art teacher when they stretch songs like "In Your Heart" to a punishingly long ten-minute running time, but for those of us on earth, we were still waiting to hear real songs.

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