Howling Bells + The Magi + Joy Formidable + Two Skies
If you think it's been a long time since you've heard from Howling Bells - since the dark majesty of that self-titled debut all the way back in May 2006 - then you should try being in the band. Bands as creatively prolific as this do not adjust well to sitting around for months at a time. "We never stop thinking and being inspired," says singer Juanita Stein. "If it were up to us, we'd put out this record tomorrow and then we'd start recording another, release that the day after, and then do another'
More so even than ‘Howling Bells', however, this is a second record that is worth waiting for. The first won them critical acclaim, certainly, the likes of ‘Setting Sun' and ‘Low Happening' lodged firmly in the minds of most who encountered them (and Howling Bells are a group very much "encountered" rather than listened to). The new album, though, is a record that seems certain to elevate them into a far wider consciousness. The dark subject matter remains (Juanita "I just feel like... a very old soul. Without sounding too pretentious about it, I feel like I feel things intensely"), but it's a set of songs that are far more adventurous and diverse sounding, yet equally as melodic. It introduces many elements to their sound that were not there before, featuring synths and guitars in equal measure. It is called ‘Radio Wars'.
"We demoed a lot of the album down at this place in Melbourne, and the radio kept on freaking out and changing stations all the time," Juanita explains. "You'd put it on one radio station and it'll start flicking to another one - we'd just get in the car and be like, "Let's play radio wars." It started like that, but then we started writing a track -called ‘Radio Wars Theme' - and that concept of changing stations formed the lyrics. But it came to mean more than that. The radio takes on a technological perspective." "It turned into a digital revolution thing," drummer Glenn continues, "That unveiled itself over time to us."
The (almost) title track of which they speak you may have already encountered, as the epic end to Howling Bells current live set. Mechanical drums pound out a robotic march, as squalling guitars and synthesisers - more on them in a minute - fight for space with an almost mantra-like, chanting vocal. It's the most unsettling, strangest track on the record. Elsewhere there's opener ‘Treasure Hunt', described by Juanita as "the perfect bridge between the first record and this one." ‘How Long', meanwhile, represents another first for Howling Bells, in that its lyrics were written entirely by guitarist Joel ("We got inside that, when we were putting it together," says bassist Brendan. "We really, really, really got inside that song and we let all our instruments and what we individually put into that song come out."). There's ‘Let's Be Kids', exploring lost innocence, that evolved out of the luxury of having more studio time. "That one started off with Glenn having, like, six hours in the room just drumming," Joel enthuses, "and completely changed from there."
This new found adventure stems from two things. Firstly, producer Dan Grech-Marguerat, who has engineered records by Radiohead, Air and Sir Paul McCartney alongside Nigel Godrich (Joel: "He worked, like, 16 hours a day, and challenged us a lot"), and secondly a totally different writing process. Says Glenn: "Most of this was written on laptops separately between the four of us, and then we had a listening party in Sydney. We sat down and everyone had a pen and a pad and we played all our songs and whichever had three ticks we'd work on."
Single ‘Into The Chaos' is typical of this, as Juanita explains: "Me and Brendan put together from other bits and pieces, it came from a purely electronic track." Brendan: "It took over maybe four forms before it was finished and we just started playing it in the room. It's another one that took on a life of its own." Juanita: "It's a really democratic process, as opposed to the first record, this one was a purely collaborative effort, I mean everybody's written this record." Joel: "We try new things every time really. In my mind that's what it comes down to. Every album we just wanna try something new I guess, it sounds so fucking clichéd, but its true..."
So musically adventurous nature aside, ask Howling Bells the all important question about whether now, two albums in, they like the idea of being a big, big band, and their answers are simple. And correct.
Juanita: "Fuck yeah! On the first record we might have made songs that are sort of subtle and dusty but that didn't mean that we weren't bursting at the seams with intent and desire and ambition."
Joel: "People in bands who don't want that are stupid. That's like saying, ‘Oh Obama, you wanna be president of the United States?' and him going, ‘Yeah, but I only wanna talk to three people.' If you wanna be president, you wanna get through to as many people as you can. I feel like that what we wanna do as a band."
Lofty, noble ambitions, then, but ambitions that are in safe hands. Prepare to be seduced once more.
Howling Bells new album ‘Radio Wars' is released in March preceded by the single ‘Cities Burning Down' on Independiente Records.