This is an album unlike most albums. Where much music now dwells in city centres in the midst of the Saturday night scrum (Hard-Fi, Kasabian, Kaiser Chiefs) or in an uptight 21st-century scratchy paranoid urbania (Bloc Party, The Rakes), the nearest Howling Bells come to the city is a lonely, dusty road with the twinkling lights of a distant township that could bring salvation or doom. From the opening naked guitar strum, it’s clear the band have no wish to revive the corpse of Britpop or post-punk or block-book Wembley stadium for soppy balladry when it opens.
No, the closest comparisons are cinematic. Howling Bells’ self-titled debut has got the same unsettling atmosphere as Lost Highway, Badlands and Donnie Darko. In common with all those films, this music resides at the unsettling fringes, a place where dreams, daydreams and reality cross over. On the final – redemptive – song ‘I’m Not Afraid’, reflecting on all that’s gone before, Juanita Stein sings: “I’ve been where the sun don’t shine/I’ve been where the trees have all died/I’ve been where there’s no pathway or door”, as her brother Joel picks at a fragile southern, gothic guitar line.
Like their fellow Australian Nick Cave, Howling Bells’ music lives on dirty plains and in lonely churchyards, weaving pre-dawn paranoia into a woozy tapestry of sex and death. And Juanita’s extraordinary voice curls around the haunting guitar lines like cigarette smoke.
On ‘Setting Sun’ her voice transforms from a sultry whisper to a roar as mournful as slide guitar, sighing backing vocals and stuttering drums build to a chorus so massive it could be seen from space. Its range and expressiveness is a kind that hasn’t emerged since PJ Harvey first sang of church gargoyles and Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star of becoming one with her lover. But while these are decent touchstones for the uninitiated, both were hamstrung by becoming merely showcases for a brilliantly talented singer, whereas Howling Bells always sound like a band, united in their vision. Indeed, Joel Stein’s guitar-playing is never less than inventive, forging the bridge between tunesmithery and mood.
On ‘A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts’ Juanita howls as her gymnastic vocals leap for the top register, but she resists the temptation to show off; all of her vocals are informed by emotion rather than smart-arsery and likewise they always serve the song in such a way as to make the lyrical barbs as compelling as possible.
And if this all talk of movies and dreams sounds a bit poncey, don’t worry. Howling Bells have taken great pains to ensure that this isn’t just atmosphere for its own sake. Where previous seekers of this romantic vision have become so obsessed with the sound that they forgot the songs, here Coldplay and Sigur Rós producer Ken Nelson has ensured that each of Howling Bells’ tunes will implant itself in your consciousness.
So the grinding intro of ‘Velvet Girl’ gives way to a beautiful melody that crosses the line from suggestive to sensual, and will already have you rapt. “Be my velvet boy”, she implores above her rising “ooh, ooh, oohs”. ‘Broken Bones’ goes into darker territory, hinting at a relationship bordering on abusive (“Broken bones may hurt/But
a broken heart will never mend”, she cries as if flinching from a raised fist), while ‘In The Woods’ floats through with the beauty and delicacy of moonlit cobwebs on the breeze.
Debut single ‘Wishing Stone’ perhaps showcases all of Howling Bells’ strengths: an insistent riff and crystalline arpeggios build to a chorus that erupts with emotion, as Juanita’s vocal dives along with the precipitous wailing guitar line, singing, “And I’m walking faster/Losing my breath/But it takes me further from here”. And any song that breaks down to a rhythm of drifting guitars and syncopated handclaps is surely worth a place in anyone’s collection.
By turns beguiling and enthralling, this is an extraordinary album. The band are brave enough to reject current trends and create their own worldview. Its true brilliance is revealed over the course of several listens, as the tunes burrow into your skull.
The, er, bells and whistles of the dark obsessions will be what attracts the psycho fans, but it’ll be the tunes that keep you coming back. Abandon the cities, head out down the less-trodden paths.