The formidable joy and the passionless pits

by Ryan Snyder

If rock is at its best when it’s capricious and unpredictable, then Joy Formidable bassist Rhydian Davies handing his axe to an unprepared fan to bring the Welsh band’s shoegaze monolith to a close last Wednesday night at Ziggy’s was a gold-medal moment. Their short opening set for indie-pop darlings Passion Pit was also practically antithetic to that of the headliners in every way: It was a tense, kinetic and, in the end, remarkably gracious showing by a band whose sold-out audience had only partially matriculated.

Frontwoman Ritzy Bryan is the quintessence of spunk in a genre where it’s rarely seen, creating dense walls of riffy guitar noise while bounding around the stage, dragging Davies with her and playfully antagonizing drummer Matthew Joyce by crashing his cymbals every chance she got. The sweetness of her voice amidst the trio’s punk fury is anything but the band’s calling card, but it’s just another layer of their notable depth.

The same couldn’t confidently be said for Passion Pit, however.

With legendary Winston-Salem pop songwriter and producer Chris Stamey in the house, Passion Pit attracted one of Ziggy’s largest crowds ever, which wasn’t entirely surprising given that they completely sold out Madison Square Garden earlier this year. It was an arena-sized spectacle inside of a fairly intimate 1,400-person venue, though Passion Pit never succeeded in bringing their set down to the size of the room. They plateaued almost instantly on opener “Make Light,” delivering note-perfect renditions of all the songs the crowd of almost 1,100 expected.

The problem was that it was too perfectly programmed. Singer Michael Angelakos paced around the stage nonstop, his falsetto rarely wavering, the crystalized synth grooves high in treble, and the band’s light show built for the just-ended summer festival season. But there was no fader, only an on-and-off switch. Passion Pit’s songs are devoid of conflict, built for timely sing-alongs and not for challenge. While their peers like Hot Chip make smart electro-pop that moves with its audience rather than for it, Passion Pit serves it simple, catchy choruses on a tee, ready to be knocked out of the park. And they were. “Take A Walk” and “Sleepyhead” were almost overwhelming in their band-audience accord, still missing though, was the real passion.