|Howling Bells — Heartstrings (2014)|
Howling Bells — Heartstrings
≡ Since Sydney-via-London-slash-Berlin four-piece Howling Bells were last heard from, tangential bands (most notably Juanita’s Albert Albert and Joel’s Glassmaps) have formed, bassists (namely Brendan Picchio) have departed and the former Stein has brought her firstborn child, Daisy Jean, into being. Thus to even so much as insinuate that the siblings — arguably going stronger than ever before — have been slacking off since The Loudest Engine of 2011 is contemptuous to say the least.
Indeed, cut Heartstrings loose from your listening patterns at your peril, because the Antipodeans’ fourth full-length effort witnesses something of a reversion to the grandiose darkness both known and renowned of their dramatic eponymous début of eight years ago.
Formed in Sydney, Australia (2005)
Location: London, Britain (UK)
Album release: June 2nd, 2014
Record Label: Caroline/Birthday Records
01 Paris 3:55
02 Possessed 1:49
03 Your Love 3:35
04 Slowburn 2:32
05 Tornado 3:01
06 Euphoria 3:07
07 Paper Heart 3:25
08 Original Sin 3:12
09 Reverie 2:59
10 Heartstrings 3:57
℗ 2014 Birthday Records
Written by Joel Stein / Juanita Stein 8, Peter Stein 5, all others Juanita Stein
≡ Juanita Stein
≡ Joel Stein
≡ Glenn Moule
≡ Gary Daines
By SAMMY MAINE, May 29th, 2014; 8 Sammy Maine's Score
≡ Back in 2006, a bunch of Aussies released a debut album that would put them at the forefront of the indie circuit. Howling Bells‘ self-titled offering was packed full of desert-drenched guitars, pulsating rhythms and smouldering vocals from frontwoman Juanita Stein and solidified their cinematic sound as one of the most exciting in recent years. Sadly, what to follow was not as exciting; 2009's Radio Wars was a confused dive into the electronic world, that had even the most loyal of fans struggling to press the repeat button whereas 2011's The Loudest Engine saw the quartet return to their rockier roots but with a lacklustre finish. The Howling Bells that stormed our shores almost a decade ago seemed to be lost forever.
≡ Severing ties with record labels and taking time out for themselves seems to have done wonders for the band. Whilst the album wasn’t exactly ‘planned’, Heartstrings sees Howling Bells sound more defined and confident than they have in years. Working with Foals and The Killers producers Catherine J Marks and Alan Moulder has also allowed the album to sound fuller than ever, in the way Foals’ ‘Inhaler’ pretty much blew everyone’s ears off. As soon as the echoing, grungey riff of ‘Paris’ opens the record, it’s like the last two albums never happened. Juanita is back to her husky yet feminine vocal, often tailing off into the odd gorgeous falsetto, giving the opener a real bite in terms of sing-a-long-ability. This is a song that says, ‘We’re back, bitches’.
≡ Howling Bells have often harked back to the soundtracks of eerie cult cinema. Here, that’s explicitly evoked by the cover art and Heartstrings certainly sets a scene, song-by-song. ‘Possessed’ smacks you in the face with immediate angry, frantic strums as Juantia shouts “I’ve come back” that breaks down into a juxtaposing pretty bridge before abruptly finishing at a short 1.50. It’s proof that this is a record where the band are focusing on their strengths – creating an atmosphere with a damn good dusty riff and a simple, yet addictive backing beat. This beat aspect takes centre stage with ‘Your Love’, bringing the drums to the forefront making for a climactic and epic instrumented surge. Juanita’s repetition of the title may get a little tiresome but the overlapping harmonies and backing vocals allow them to eventually come into play with the rest of the instrumentation.
≡ Single ‘Slowburn’ is up there with ‘Low Happening’ and ‘Setting Sun’. It could easily have slotted onto their debut with its catchy, stay-in-your-head-for-days crescendo chorus and the guitars sound absolutely full of depth in terms of production. The repetitive lyrics aren’t a problem here, as Howling Bells so often demonstrate their ability to produce a hit in under three minutes. However, the repetitive lyrics do get a little tiresome and the metaphors a little obvious with ‘Tornado’, which is disappointing, as the instrumentation is often so full of cinematic glory. The band also love a good ballad and here we’re faced with ‘Euphoria’ and ‘Paper Heart’ which, thanks to some tinkling xylophones, echoing bass lines and the band’s token guitars, allows Juanita to really shine. The key changes on ‘Paper Heart’ are particularly beautiful. It does however, slow the album down a little too much, almost squashing the energy the first few tracks had mustered.
≡ Finishing with the grungey ‘Original Sin’ and ‘Reverie’ before ending with the slow-paced title track, this is a band back to their best. Confident song structures, accomplished, fearless vocals and beautifully put-together instrumentation, Heartstrings will coax the band’s early fans into forgiving them for their previous offerings. Stick to the guitars guys, you sound wonderful. (http://www.drownedinsound.com/)
Piri Eddy, Score: ****
By John Murphy | posted on 1 Jun 2014 | Score: ****
≡ You would be forgiven for thinking that we’d heard the last of Howling Bells. Eight years ago, the Australians released one of the best albums of the year with their self-titled debut, and it seems their career since then has been defined by a struggle to follow it. Their second album Radio Wars was a crushing disappointment, while 2011′s The Loudest Engine was so flat, many people were surprised to hear it had even been released.
≡ Since The Loudest Engine, there’s been side projects (lead singer Juanita Stein formed Albert Albert with former Kaiser Chiefs member Nick Hodgson while her guitarist brother Joel has been recording under the name Glassmaps), line-up changes and splits from record labels, but no sign of any new music. Until now, that is — and from the very first note of Heartstrings’ opening track Paris, it’s clear that Howling Bells have undergone something of a rebirth.
≡ The term ‘rebirth’ seems appropriate, not just because this is their first album since Juanita became a mother in 2012. Heartstrings is the follow-up that Radio Wars should have been, in which the Steins seem to have gone back to the drawing board to discover what made them great in the first place. And what makes them great is their songs — dusty, folk-blues Americana which sounds almost cinematic in places (indeed, even the album cover is designed as a movie poster).
≡ Paris sounds like a statement of intent, right from the opening fiery guitar riff which introduces a melody that swoops and soars magnificently. Stein’s voice sounds terrific: brooding, passionate and longing, and when its followed by the powerful, frantic and incendiary noise of Possession, it’s impossible not to feel that this is a band re-energised after a few years away.
≡ There are several moments that remind one of that debut album — the terrific Slowburn sounds both instantly familiar and irresistibly fresh and Tornado has a surf-guitar motif that almost fizzles with energy. Yet there’s also a resigned sadness lurking underneath, especially in Stein’s mournful vocals, which adds a level of maturity which serves the band well.
≡ The stripped-back Paper Heart sounds especially poignant, being just Stein’s voice against a piano and some soft strings, while Your Love is positively heartbreaking, especially Stein’s delivery of a line like “I miss your sadness and broken heart, but most of all I miss your love”. Although there’s a tendency to repeat lyrics a little too much — as on the otherwise excellent Tornado — it’s easy to overlook when they sound this focused.
≡ As great as much of Heartstrings is, there are a few issues with it. It’s rather front-loaded, as after the fiery opening half of the album, it peters out a bit towards the end with a few too many mid-paced ballads. Some, like the aforementioned Paper Heart, are impossibly pretty, but others, like the nondescript Euphoria or the title track which closes the album, are rather bland.
≡ That is, in all honesty, a minor quibble though, as the majority of Heartstrings is the stirring return to form that much of us had hoped for each time Howling Bells released a new record. We’ve been waiting eight years for them to confirm that their debut album was no one-off. Now, we know that’s not the case.
|Howling Bells — Heartstrings (2014)|
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