Howling Bells - The Loudest Engine
For a third time, the Bells do toll. A stealthy surprise this, a return from a band who released their last work just two years ago but seem to have been lost to the wilderness for a lengthier stretch. Alas, fads come and go but good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll works whenever it's called upon to do so and, with The Loudest Engine, Australian four-piece Howling Bells are once again ready to howl - and howl loud.
2009's Radio Wars was a worthy successor to 2006's eponymous debut, the startling introduction that painted the band as navigators of their own dark sonic highway. The follow-up kept the growling guitars but expermented with synths, brass and beats in an attempt to throw off critics after descriptions of their sound as 'gothic' left the Bells confused; I really liked the new direction but said critics, who had previously hailed the debut, were lukewarm. Therefore, The Loudest Engine could be considered a 'make or break' affair for a band in want of - and deserving of - both critical and commercial acclaim. Las Vegas production duties were extended to Mark Stoermer, bassist with The Killers (a band the Bells have toured with extensively), and that title is one so bold that it's required to deliver.
Thankfully, Engine is well-oiled like its immediate predecessor but isn't afraid to detour down some darker, more treacherous paths. 'Charlatan' is a perfect opener to ease both the dedicated and newcomer back in, an acknowledgment of a love/hate figure that idly throws attitude from the speakers thanks to gutsy guitars and a perfectly judged delivery of its central lyric, "You steal the light from the sun / You're not a man / You're a beautiful, beautiful charlatan." New single 'Into the Sky' (catch the vid below) is similarly short but savagely sweet, a pleading farewell to a no-good lover driven by propulsive drums, squalling guitars and a vocal that is equal parts cool and fiery.
Notice a theme here? As always, the assured vocal presence of frontwoman (and unofficial eighth wonder of the world) Juanita Stein is a consistent feature of the album, although brother Joel on lead guitar and Glenn Moule (drums) and Brendan Picchio (bass) are also on form. Together, they shape a record that takes the previous records' gloomy blues and anthemic driving rock and decorates them with new folk flirtations and psychedelic obsessions. It's certainly a progression, the crazy carousel of noise that acts as the coda to 'The Wilderness' only a stone's throw away from the soul-lifting harmonies of 'Don't Run'.
The album's real strength lies within its final stretch, the final third or so proof that the back-end of a record doesn't have to struggle and sink; here, the band hit their stride, settle into their new proggy tip and grip us through to a thrilling conclusion. What has come before has been enjoyable, sure, from the spirited hip sway seduction of 'Secrets' to the sing-aloud chorus of lens-flared '70s throwback 'Live On'. However, the cinematic atmosphere of the first record (briefly ignited on 'The Faith') is reborn on the chugging, antsy title track - heed Juanita's advice and "don't even try to tame" this one because it is confident in its gloriously dramatic destination. Its direct follow-up 'Gold Suns, White Guns' is a wonderful surprise free of signposts, witnessing Juanita's vocal going a bit Kate Bush before spinning into a trippy sonic representation of the inside of a kaleidoscope.
These two highlights make way for a superb finish that witnesses both 'Sioux' and 'Baby Blue' providing swooning melodies set to twisted folk backdrops, before 'Invisible' closes the deal with a dazzling demonstration of the Bells' tense and twitchy but beguilingly sexy rock sound. Juanita purrs the promise "Keep breathing, you're alright" over prowling guitars that suggest she's actually about to entrap us and work some black widow black magic. Although on first listen, The Loudest Engine may present itself as the most scattered of the band's three albums, it works its wonders patiently and an assured thread soon presents itself. That first album is still its own peculiar creature and hard to beat because of this, but the band have proved their belltower remains a den of intoxicating noise.