Country, Blues, Rock, and Gloom
Howling Bells is a strangely apt name for this Australian quartet, who released their fourth album Heartstrings this week: take the pealing of bells, a sound that connotes sweetness, or maybe urgency, but in either case a smooth, clear and ringing note. Smash it against “howling,” and you’ve got the sometimes gritty, almost always melodic sound of Howling Bells.
The band debuted their self-titled debut in 2006 to great acclaim in Australia and the UK, but their subsequent two records (Radio Wars in 2009 and The Loudest Engine in 2011) didn’t do quite so well, perhaps because Howling Bells took a step away from their debut to experiment with a more electronic sound on the former, and a more raw, organic one on the latter. After the relative disappointment of The Loudest Engine, the band took a two-year break to work on other projects. Bassist Gary Daines joined the band, and vocalist/guitarist/all-around-awesome-frontwoman Juanita Stein became a mother. Heartstrings finds the band stepping back toward their roots, mixing elements of blues, country and good old-fashioned rock and roll.
The album begins with “Paris,” where a distorted guitar riff and light percussion with a minor, edgy feel transition into a more melodic, shoegaze-y track. It’s a paean to Paris and love (“I wanna be in Paris with the sun”), but it’s far from sentimental. And it runs right into the heavy, brief, rocking spurt of energy that is “Possesed,” where Stein’s vocals and her brother Joel’s guitar crash repeatedly into the verse.
Much of the album continues in a similar, rock-stomping way: the single “Slowburn” features driving, pulsing guitars and percussion carried by Stein’s low, confident vocals, and “Tornado” has a rolling beat, low guitars, and sultry vocals that give it a dark western feel with the lyrics to match (“Keep your voices down / Don’t let the devil hear you cry” Stein sings). “Original Sin” is a bluesy, rocking strut of a track that would let Howling Bells give the Black Keys a run for their money.
But not all of Heartstrings rocks so hard—as one might expect, for an album named for an abstract emotional concept. “Your Love” is a calm ballad that borders on sappy, as is the closing title track. “Euphoria” delves into an acoustic folk-country sound, with soft, slow guitars bending into the ether, and “Paper Heart” becomes a sort of dark lullaby of vocals and spare piano chords, a nod to emotional fragility and resilience (“You left me a paper heart / But I know it can’t bleed”).
Howling Bells might have been criticized for their experiments with sound on previous albums, but they’ve now had the chance to develop and hone their sound, maturing it. While Heartstrings shows they still have some work to do, Howling Bells will certainly be a band to watch.