Back in 2004, the four-piece rock band Howling Bells swapped their base in Sydney, Australia, for the gritty music scene of London. Since then, they have been slowly gaining recognition and fans, as tonight’s packed NME Awards Show proves.
Their beguiling eponymous debut album of 2006 was full of intoxicating melodies, in the dreamy vein of Mazzy Star, all carried by the velvet vocals of their singer, Juanita Stein. The band have the look, too. Her brother, lead guitarist Joel Stein, and bassist Brendan Picchio have the rough swagger of rock stars while their singer is all kittenish charm, clad in sequinned top and leather trousers.
Tonight showcases their new album, Radio Wars, which casts a thick menacing shadow over their already gothic-blues-rock country-folk with its heavier tone and added samples. Still, almost every dark and threatening track Stein transcends into melodic bliss. Joel, provides the ideal balance. While Juanita gently strums along to her purring vocals in the gothic-blues rock single “Cities Burning Down”, Joel bursts in with menacing judders of guitar over a shimmering riff that recalls Mogwai’s “Fear Satan”. The dark edge of “Treasure Hunt”, too, is softened by her lilting vocals.
But elsewhere in Radio Wars, there is too much going on sonically to give her voice room to roll. The finale, a cover of Britney Spears’s “Toxic”, is carried by the vocals – but their attempt to recreate the pop synth sound live comes across as sparse and tinny.
Paradoxically it’s their many inventive ideas that set them back live. The sheer melee of effects in tonight’s set forces them noticeably out of time on at least one occasion. A sample kicks the whole of “Cities Burning Down” out of synch. But, to their credit, their attempts to recreate the powerful sound of their songs are effective. They perform the heaviest-edged songs from their debut, but it’s still the gloriously haunting “Setting Sun”, capturing the eerie world of Twin Peaks, that remains one of their best and gives the vocals space to soar to its heights. “Nightingale” is the most comparable new song.
There is only one song out of place in an otherwise entrancing set. “Golden Web” is far less captivating than its subject suggests. But when Howling Bells get it right, they are sublime.
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