Although Howlin Rain has been shoveled into the ‘New Weird America’ genre along artists such as Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, there’s one thing that Howlin Rain does differently than all the other weirdoes: It rocks. Shedding the cocoon of post-rock and electronic that shrouds so much of today’s independent music, Howlin Rain creates music deeply planted in the rootsy psychedelia of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Equal parts Grateful Dead and Faces, Magnificent Fiend is filled with lengthy guitar jams on a bed of country-rock grooves.
Howlin Rain was formed as a project of Comets on Fire guitarist/singer Ethan Miller and Sunburned Hand of the Man leader John Moloney in 2004. After their self-titled debut in 2006, Moloney left the band. Miller spent the following year writing new songs and recruiting a quintet of Northern California indie veterans to bring what would become Magnificent Fiend to life.
Magnificent Fiend focuses more on the music than the lyrics. Nevertheless, Miller manages to squeeze in his gloomy rhymes between the numerous guitar and organ solos. “We are only slaves / To our ghostly arms and legs / Dancing in our grave / Laid in the ruins of the golden age,” sings Miller on the album highlight, “Calling Lightning, Pt 2.”
“Lord Have Mercy” starts with the guys doing their best Pink Floyd impersonations but quickly gives way to a raucous romp of slicing guitar solos, atmospheric organs and an epic refrain complete with choral flourishes. Not having the guts to follow an all out assault with another rocker, the next song, “Nomads,” is the album’s most mellow piece. Wallowing in languid vibes and a bluesy electric piano working its way around Miller’s sweet falsetto, the song feels like summertime in the South.
Tracks such as “El Rey” and “Goodbye Ruby” indulge listeners with funky horn arrangements while “Riverboat” serves as good recap of the whole album – a delicate roots-rock tune turned psychedelic guitar freak-out.
The songs on Magnificent Fiend are long – all stretching over the five-minute mark – but this is more of a blessing than a curse. Howlin Rain eschews the “jam band mentality” that can ruin songs three minutes too early. There are many solos but no noodling around. Numerous dynamic changes keep things interesting even at six minutes, and the band often displays a prog-rock penchant not usually seen in psychedelic rock.
Succeeding where bands like The Darkness never could, Howlin Rain combines an old sound with a new, weird American approach to keep it fresh. Neil Young should be proud.
4 out of 5 stars.