Electric Ballroom, London
Thursday, 15th September 2011
Howling Bells emerged in 2006 with an eponymous debut showcasing a sound that's fully formed and all their own. Part bluesy rock and roll, part melancholic indie-pop, all of it is shot through with a gothic ambiance that thankfully adds an engaging layer of emotion rather than a maudlin theatricality to their songs. Perennially on the cusp of breaking through, tonight’s show is the second date in their tour to promote album number three, The Loudest Engine.
As the band emerges the audience, seemingly made up of most of London’s Aussie ex-pat community, greets them with rapturous applause. The first time I saw Howling Bells, live I was a student in Manchester. Then, as now Juanita Stein was pushed to the fore, her captivating looks more than matched by her vocals, by turns strident and beguiling. That night, an idiot in the front row attempted to take a photo up her dress, at which point the lead guitarist (and Juanita’s brother) Joel threatened to beat seven bells out of the guy, rightly so. It is an excellent shorthand for this band - beautiful (and handsome, too), with a dark undercurrent that could spill over at any moment.
They’ve come a long way since then. The audience here is about four times as big, and 100% more respectful. Respectful shouldn’t be mistaken for quietness though, as these guys get shouty, beer-soaked approval after each song. The storming set works its magic on the audience. The band bravely lead with the ‘hits’ from their first album, in combination with a dazzling light show. The obvious chemistry on stage only adds to the sense of band and audience having a great time.
'Setting Sun' understandably gets a great reception, showcasing Howling Bells at their best, deftly turning from moody build up to riff-tastic belter, replete with sing-along chorus. Afterwards Juanita coyly states: "This is the second night of our tour - going pretty well so far..." The crowd hoots and hollers its approval. Special guest, and producer of the latest album Mark Stoermer (of Killers fame) comes on stage to join in on a new track, a lovely song with electric and acoustic cyclical guitar refrains.
Howling Bells at their best build tension like a coiled spring before letting it spill over the audience in a wall of pounding drums, riffs and soaring vocals. They retain the energy I remember from the first time I saw them; they work better as a tight unit, playing to their strengths and interacting well with the crowd. But I can’t help but think they’ve never really produced anything to match the quality of the singles from their debut. So I leave with a smile, ringing ears and a sense that Howling Bells may continue to be the perennial next big thing.
words: Simon Garner
Howling Bells play at the Oran Mor, Glasgow (tonight, September 19) and Academy 3, Manchester (September 20). The Loudest Engine is available now.