Confusingly inconsistant...

Like The Duke Spirit, Howling Bells are long-time purveyors of raw, scuzzy, female-fronted rock n’ roll. Their star was brightest several years ago when their eponymous debut album, on Bella Union, broke the four-piece as a fuzzily melodic band with a knack for a hooky chorus; but their third LP, ‘The Loudest Engine’, was released this week to some decidedly mixed reviews.

Though the Electric Ballroom is only two-thirds full tonight, this audience seems to have a rabid enthusiasm and zeal for the band. The grimy vibes and sultry pace of opener ‘Charlatan’ (taken from the new record) eases the crowd into the performance. But when the discordant, slashing chords of ‘Blessed Night’ hit the air, an adrenalised energy fills the room and takes hold of the crowd as Juanita Stein sways back and forth around the mic like a snake charmer wielding a guitar, while the music – fiery and vicious – crashes all around her.

‘Cities Burning Down’ is woozily hypnotic and, in places, knife-edge menacing. But as the set progresses, things get oddly patchy. ‘Setting Sun’, one of Howling Bells’ biggest hits, is played routinely and without passion. The power of its soaring chorus stifled in a blanket of apparent indifference by the band, yet new track ‘Gold Suns, White Guns’ is delivered with real venom. The contrast between good and bad tonight is thoroughly confusing – when they’re good, Howling Bells catch hold of your soul, and serrate the air with pure rock n’ roll power. When they’re bad, (as on ‘Sioux’, where they’re joined onstage by The Killers’ Mark Stoermer who produced the new album), they tread through the music so ponderously that it’s like watching a particularly sluggish tortoise crawling across a muddy football pitch.

Thankfully, there’s a lot more good than bad tonight. ‘The Loudest Engine’ is delivered with a superbly acidic edge that is full of malevolence and malice. Juanita roams the stage with a tambourine while the rest of the band appear in silhouette against the glowing orange light, like monoliths in front of the embers of a burning building. And ‘Broken Bones’ is as brilliant as ever; a stormy, melodic whirlpool carried high by that hook-laden chorus.

The final song semi-drags the main set to a close, finishing in a fairly terrible, semi-psychedelic wig-out. But the crowd call for more and the band head back out for an encore of ‘Low Happening’ (“you listen to trash / but it’s not rock n’ roll,” howls Juanita), and ‘Live On’ – an urgent, relentless beat segues into the chorus which flows like silk, and leaves you wishing the entire set had flowed this well.

Howling Bells’ edge is still sharp, their passion undiminished, but it’s questionable whether their star will ever burn as brightly as before. Catch them now, before they fade from the firmament.

Words by Chris Watkeys
Photo by Stephen Fourie

View a full, accompanying photo gallery from this gig HERE.

Follow Clash: