The Zero Hour

Reviews, rants and oddities on video game and film culture.

Music Monday #4: Howling Bells – Self Titled

I’ve never really been sure why, but I’ve always been drawn to bands with female vocalists, which would probably explain why I’ve so heavily endorsed Metric and Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the past couple of weeks. Whilst I can’t exactly give a straight answer to why, I think it partly leads into the vocal style, I tend to find that you can get more emotion out of a female voice than you can a males. I’m not saying male voices are devoid of emotion, in fact I’m sure in future weeks we’ll see many cases that are the opposite, but for now, let’s talk about Howling Bells.

Howling Bells are a band who like a lot of bands of the period, never quite managed a level of huge success. They came close to it, having toured with Coldplay, critical acclaim and being pick of the week on many radio stations, but it never translated to number 1 albums. Maybe they never will have a gold record and maybe their best years are now behind them (Their 3rd album, The Loudest Engine, whilst enjoyable, didn’t have the magic of the previous two albums), but they are a fascinating, unique band who hold a very special place in my heart.

Formed in Sydney and originally as “Wakiki”, peddling a pop rock sound, the band were dis-satisfied with their sound and decided to change direction, and this involved a big name change to Howling Bells. The making of their first album really kicked off after sending demos to Coldplay producer Ken Nelson, who wanted to work with them in England, this meant the band upping sticks and moving to Liverpool, but there was a catch. Nelson was working on Coldplay’s X&Y and the band spent 10 months waiting for him to become available after X&Y sessions ran on. The unhappiness in the band, stuck in the UK during the cold winter and the delay in production, began to seep into their sound, creating a strange mix of country, gothic blues and indie rock and it suits the vocals, coming across as part Bronte novel, part twin peaks, part PJ Harvey.

So you’d expect this strange mash of styles to be a mess, right? Wrong. It’s a beautiful album, Juanita Stein is possibly one of the best vocalists out there, and it’s her voice and lyrics that lift songs like Setting Sun and The Night Is Young to another plain. Setting Sun especially is a particularly stand-out track, its slide guitars and build-up give the sense of floating as it creates this psychedelic crazy chorus. And then we have Broken Bones, where her feather light falsetto keeps the track feeling bouncy and breezy and even youthful.

For all its gothic twang, the album does have this element of child-like playfulness. Velvet Girl has this one line of teenage ambition that, excuse the pun, completely struck a chord with me. “I’ll be your velvet girl/we’ll leave this town/and change the world” and right there, you have this simple line that feels silly in the eyes of grown-ups, but for an impressionable young teenager, it was just inspirational. That said, in my honest opinion, the album is at its best towards the end when it grows up in a sense. In The Woods is possibly one of the most heart-breaking songs I’ve ever heard, it’s got whispering intimacy against what seems like a magical backdrop and boy/girl vocals sharing each verse like airing their problems out to the world. And the chorus delivery “I can’t run away/from myself/like yesterday/and I/I’ll change my ways/someday soon” is acknowledging their problems, but being helpless to change them, it’s so startling and haunting that it sticks in your mind.

And then the album ends with I’m Not Afraid, which feels like the soundtrack to some kind of Wild West Wasteland, being lost and confused, but strong about what’s coming next. And that’s kind of a nice message to end on, don’t you think?

Key tracks

– Setting Sun
– In The Woods
– The Night Is Young

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