Howling Bells - Radio Wars

The Australians' second is a dark-hearted affair
_original
Tricky situation: you’ve a great debut under your belt, enough column inches of praise to close a landfill four years early, and one of the prettiest singers in the whole of indie-rock. But you’ve been away a while – three years since that self-titled breakthrough – and, hell, this industry don’t stand still for no man or woman. Album two needs to make an impact. Hard, fast, deep. Or bust.

Everything could have gone awry for Australian rockers Howling Bells with the release of ‘Radio Wars’. It seems to have been completed for ages, and the band has been playing songs from it live for some time. They’ve been through the industry mixer, languishing in something of a between-label limbo for a little longer than they anticipated. It’s not helped their chances, especially as the label that handled their debut, Bella Union, has seen its star ascend like never before, courtesy of Fleet Foxes, since Howling Bells parted company with them (amicably, it should be noted). But they’ve battled and they’re back. And they’ve delivered.

‘Radio Wars’ retains the delicate balance between light and shade present on its makers’ debut offering, but incorporates a far wider range of sounds and styles. It’s apparent from the opening brace of ‘Treasure Hunt’ and ‘Cities Burning Down’ that there’s a raging desire for progression in the band, as both take from the debut and add fiery extras – the mix possesses greater texture, Juanita Stein’s lyricism has developed and her delivery is that little bit punchier; around her, the compositions reveal layers that entice the listener in, feeling their way down dark avenues that once seemed a lot… friendlier.

Yeah, that’s the difference – this is Howling Bells getting, to an extent, nasty. Sure, Stein’s still the beauty shining from the core of so much beastly, muscular instrumentation, but her intentions are unclear: to kiss or to kill? Topics touch upon the well trodden – affairs of a broken heart, nostalgia for simpler times, an uncertain future – but throughout the delivery is pitched perfectly between the accomplishedly pop-savvy and the doom-laden miserablism of an ‘80s goth act toying with a mainstream formula. All the while accessibility is maintained, so songs operate on two distinct levels: the immediate and the cerebral. And it’s when you dive in deeper that this record’s charms reveal themselves.

It’s not just the voice that carries one into the depths – listen beyond that and you hear guitar work that caresses the listener into a calm submission, percussion that stabs between the gaps in the six-string wash, and bass work the serves to erect a sturdy backbone to tales that suck one in and rarely offer an escape ‘til the band is finished. They’ve a song called ‘Golden Web’ – it’s a neat visual metaphor for an album that’s beautiful on the surface, but could well contain dangers unlikely to reveal themselves on the first listen. (As an aside, said track’s one of the album’s weaker moments, but its relative minimalism at least displays another string to the band’s bow.)

Closer ‘How Long’ is an offering of truest ache, naked in its sincerity; but it’s an unusually open turn after so much mystique and questions left unanswered. Come its final fade, it’s unclear exactly how ‘Radio Wars’ has had an effect on you, such are its subtleties, but it certainly has, and maybe more so than the band’s great debut. Only repeat plays will clear up the confusion, starting now…

- - -

Look out for an exclusive interview with Howling Bells later this week on ClashMusic.com.

Have your say

Sign in or Register to leave comments
-