Returning with new vitality and maturity, Howling Bells deliver another smooth and satisfying affair. The luscious voice of Juanita Stein, unsurprisingly, hasn’t left her and despite taking two years out from writing, the band’s trademark garage rock kicks have remained in place. In that time Stein formed side project Albert Albert alongside ex-members of criminally underrated Leeds band Black Wire. Erring away from the bold sentiments of ‘Hard to Love and Easy to Lay’ though, Howling Bells, especially influenced by Stein having her first child, have crafted an excitable but sometimes introspective album that analyses delicately and in detail what matters most in life.
In terms of cities that matter most, Ladyhawke, St Vincent and Friendly Fires could venture Paris as an option and it’s one Howling Bells would take too, kicking off ‘Heartstrings’ with a song dedicated to the French capital. Second track ‘Possessed’ represents a high point in the energy stakes, a thrashing, chugging beast layered with Stein’s liquid voice explaining with temptation “… I can see that look in your eyes”. A trio of tracks present a good argument for a radio-friendly stadium rocking direction, with ‘Slowburn’ the most convincing claim of all; a perfectly poised indie staple with irresistible oohs, swirling keyboards and a haywire fuzzing riff. It’s exhilarating, but seemingly exhausting, as by the end of listenable Johnny Cash-ish follow-up ‘Tornado’ momentum is irretrievably lost to the country ballad of ‘Euphoria’. After that it’s the wheel spinning the hamster, rather than the hamster spinning the wheel, bar for a spirited rally with the swaggering ‘Original Sin’.
It’s not routine or mundane, but the second half of the album represents a disappointing fade in if not quality, excitement. Howling Bells are, very suitably, best when they’re howling, not chiming or ringing lamely. At that best though, there are festival anthems just waiting for a rainy day and packed tent on uneven ground. They’re still seductive, fiery and invigorating, but oddly with age there seems to be chinks of weakness in their tenderness. It’s no surprise that with Alan Moulder as producer as he has been for Nine Inch Nails, The Smashing Pumpkins and Interpol, its highest points are also its most intense.
Last album ‘The Loudest Engine’ represented a push in a more garage rock direction for the band and it’s one they must continue through ‘Heartstrings’ and onwards. For an album that spends much time contemplating the journey the real pay-off may come next time, at what just could possibly be the destination.