A glorious and gritty, free-wheeling rock-and-roll maelstrom that revelled in everything that was great about 1970s rock, Howlin’ Rain’s self-titled debut was one of the most cruelly ignored albums of 2006, wonderfully combining as it did the sonic damage of Comets on Fire’s Ethan Miller’s guitar and the insane rhythmic pounding of Sunburned Hand of the Man’s John Moloney.
Sadly, the original three-man line-up of Miller, Moloney, and bassist Ian Gradek is no longer in place. Moloney and Gradek have moved on, and Miller is now joined by Joel Robinow and Eli Eckert (both from Drunk Horse), Garrett Goddard (Cuts and Colossal Yes), and Humboldt guitarist Mike Jackson.
By adding a second guitar, bass, keys, and horns, Howlin’ Rain have created a far more nuanced, richer, and ambitious record than their debut, but a record that’s much less gritty, much less frenetic, and, sadly, much lighter. Magnificent Fiend never rages in the same way that its predecessor did. In their two year absence from the recording studio, Miller’s hoarse vocals have become more velvety than vicious.
Jackson’s rhythm guitar and Robinow’s organ should free up Miller’s guitar to enter full-on assault mode, but it never happens. “Calling Lightning Pt. 2”—a sunny sequel to “Calling Lightning With a Scythe”—lacks any of the clatter and hum of its prequel.
The seven-minute meandering tale of modern war “El Rey” is pastoral and tranquil, and while “Dancers at the End of Time”—an homage to Jherrek Carnelian (a creation of Hawkwind collaborator and sci-fi writer, Michael Moorecock)—offers the album’s most exciting riff, it’s still a shadow of the kind Miller was pranging out on the last Comets album.
Miller’s guitar on the Grateful Dead-aping “Nomads” marks the first time his fretwork can ever be described as subtle, while “Goodbye Ruby” offers a series of solos containing nothing more ferocious than anything on Steve Malkmus’s Real Emotional Trash. The flurrying freak-out at the end of “Lord Have Mercy” is impressive until you remember that it’s an almost direct knock off of Yes’s “Starship Trooper/Wyrm”.
At the album’s conclusion Miller cries, “Furious misfortune is upon us!” It should be an apocalyptic warning. It’s not—album closer “Riverboat” is massively uplifting, warm, and joyous.
With Comets on Fire now seemingly disbanded and Miller’s fellow Comets alumni Ben Chasney and John Moloney now pushing harder and harder into the boundaries of delineated soundscapes with Six Organs of Admittance and Sunburned Hand of the Man, respectively, it’s a huge disappointment that Miller hasn’t been able to match the brilliance of his old band with Howlin’ Rain’s second album. You sense there’s no one else quite as likely to make you yearn for the days of Creedence and Skynyrd in the same way.
Howlin’ Rain have obviously fought hard to find great songs at the heart of their freak-outs, but on their debut the freak-outs weren’t merely embellishments, they were the songs. It may be churlish to criticise Miller for proving and expanding his range, but anyone expecting another superior, overdriven, psych cacophony will be disappointed.