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Howling Bells
Radio Wars Julian Marszalek , March 2nd, 2009 08:03

Sometimes it's best to be left alone, if not entirely overlooked. Sydney's Howling Bells proved to be one of the more discreet highlights of 2006. With the minimum of fanfare and with nary a nod to the prevailing trends and whatever buzz bands had the indie press wetting their Top Man skinny jeans about, the quartet fashioned a debut that heralded a distinct voice that delivered on the unfulfilled promise of near sonic compatriots The Duke Spirit.

Dancing to country ballads, painting ambient soundscapes or grinding to down and dirty rock, Howling Bells flirted with the sound, imagery and roots of rock 'n' roll at its most primal. Distant relatives of Mazzy Star and claiming a lineage that acknowledged forebears The Jesus & Mary Chain, the prospect of Howling Bells upping the scuzz quotient was as anticipated as it was necessary. Alas, with the glittering prize so close within their grasp, they band have resolutely failed to seize it with either hand.

Somewhere, in the transition between moving from their homeland to the UK and recording this follow-up in Los Angeles, Howling Bells have lost sight of the very thing that made them special in the first place. Haunting and evocative, their debut was informed by Australia's panoramic vistas. In the same way that Nick Cave successfully relocated the Western to the southern hemisphere, so Howling Bells gave a uniquely Antipodean twist to an American classic.

Within seconds of 'Treasure Hunt' springing from the traps it soon becomes apparent that we're listening to a very different band. Under normal circumstances this would be no bad thing – forward motion is something that eludes any number of artists only to keen to play a safe game – but here, Howling Bells haven't simply removed the grit from the under their nails, they've checked into a health farm and gone for the whole detox.

'Cities Burning Down' fares a little better thanks to narcotic woozy drone but its reliance on borrowing from New Order's 'Sixty Miles An Hour' may have the Mancunians calling their lawyers. 'Into The Chaos', recently released as teaser, revelled in a pop sensibility but taken in the context of the ten tracks contained herein is soon lost in the blandness that surrounds it. Indeed, by the time 'Let's Be Kids' arrives around the halfway mark and the suspicion lingers that maybe the album has gone on repeat without you noticing it. Moreover, the once sultry delivery of singer Juanita Stein has been ironed out to a fairly uniform style that aims for universality but ends up pleasing no one. A missed opportunity then, and one that could end up haunting them.

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