[31 October 2013]
In late ‘80s and early ‘90s England, the Madchester sound was at the forefront of British rock culture. Helmed by classic bands like the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, the bands in this scene combined psychedelia, funk, house music, and guitar rock in a variety of ways and with varying degrees of success. Of the era, The Stone Roses’ self titled debut album and the Happy Mondays’ Pills, Thrills, and Bellyaches remain important and enduring documents. Jagwar Ma, a trio hailing from Australia, come from a very similar tradition but instead of just recycling this style, they update it in a big way, creating a vibrant dance rock sound that is as funky as it is beautiful.
Howlin’ literally could not start out any stronger than it does. “What Love”, “Uncertainty”, and “The Throw” are inventive, memorable, and make you want to dance your ass off. I could easily see these songs being standards at any and all hip parties and dance clubs for at least the next twenty years. “What Love” fades in with synth bleats that bounce around over a slow motion four-on-the-floor rhythm drum machine. Different elements are consistently introduced, taken away, and then brought back for a grand finale. “Uncertainty” is augmented with the Beatles’ “Taxman”-esque guitar stabs over a bubbling synth. Eerie harmonies reminiscent of Abbey Road’s “Because” fall in as the song breaks out in to a nasty groove and becomes the theme to the funkiest dance party of all time.
The album’s initial run climaxes in “The Throw” which is a glorious dance floor epic that continues on in an astounding amalgamation of funky grooves, reverbed vocals, psychedelic guitars, and bleary synthesizers. “The Throw” stays with us for almost seven minutes but the track could go on for an eternity as far as I’m concerned. These songs show off Jagwar Ma’s astounding dynamic range and uncanny ability to build a song from skeletal, ghostly beginnings in to massive climaxes of dance-floor 4/4 rhythms. Jono Ma’s guitars and synthesizers make each song a dense landscape of beauty while the bass lays down some of the meanest grooves this side of ‘70s Aerosmith. Vocalist Gabriel Winterfield is a very strong presence in an era where most male indie rock singers simply aren’t.
Often Jagwar Ma takes a more classic rock approach to their songwriting and in that way they truly do recall Madchester forefathers the Stone Roses. “That Loneliness” is a pure pop song, capturing the vitality of a Motown melody and mixing it with a patchwork of colorful synth noises and driving drum machines. Despite the well-tread subject matter of “Come Save Me”, the song is another winning electronic dance rock epic. “Let Her Go” represents a striking change-up on Howlin’ beginning with a naked late-‘60s garage rock guitar riff in the vein of the British invasion sound. The song isn’t a pure throwback as Ma buries synth burbles and noises underneath the main drive of the song. Unfortunately, “Let Her Go” doesn’t quite live up to the superior melodic tendencies of the likes of the Animals and the Kinks.
The back half of Howlin’ falls off a bit, which is kind of inevitable with an album that starts as strongly as this one does. It’s not that the songs on the back half are bad; they just don’t have the same drive and purpose. “Exercise” has a mean Californication-era Chili Peppers bass groove, but the song ends up aimlessly wandering around instead of being an airtight journey from point A to point B. Album closer “Backwards Berlin” utilizes acoustic guitar over dense atmospherics but the song is mostly just a cool soundscape and acts as a weak closer to an otherwise strong album.
The last band to channel the Madchester sound in such a solid way was the Music with their self-titled 2002 breakout. However, the Music was still unmistakably a rock band. They mainly incorporated dance rhythms in to their traditional rock band set-up, whereas Jagwar Ma use drums machines, samples, and synthesizers along with guitars to blend rock and dance music to the point where its hard to tell where the rock ends and the dance begins. Jagwar Ma have emerged with a complete vision on Howlin’ and the album is an astounding debut from an exciting new band. Put this album on at your next party and watch it transform your domicile in to the most exciting club on the planet.