Howling Bells and The Joy Formidable - Manchester Club Academy

A mouth-watering double bill is turned on its head. Howling Bells are touring album number two, ‘Radio Wars’, a record that largely – and largely successfully - turns its back on their debut’s indie rock guitar squall in favour of softer beats, programming and a wholly sunnier (ish) disposition. The Joy Formidable are building a little bit of a buzz with non-stop gigging in support of their ‘A Balloon Called Moaning’ debut album.

The Joy Formidable deliver flinty, fevered guitar dynamics and are different enough to grab my failing attention. Their inflamed, epic opener is called ‘The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade’. Get that. That’s so unashamed and lacking in restraint as to deserve a hug. It bends itself around a jittering, sequenced three note riff and does something notable : straight away several hundred people quit their cackling and pay uncommon attention. And stick with them during a raucous, riveting half hour.

The three piece exceed expectations by some degree. Check out their Myspace site and you get minor promise. Live, they are altogether more muscular, louder, bigger than the tiny speakers on your computer might suggest. Ritzy, the blonde, bobbed singer and guitarist who has the look of a young Kristin Hersh, and whose recorded voice has a hint of helium, has a fuller, grainier quality onstage. Sealing the deal to her right is cohort Rhydian, from the Mike Mills school of bassists (upfront involvement and capable vocal contribution.) Matt on drums is a smart anchor and his dislike for his snare is cool. The Joy Formidable benefit from a sound system of unfathomable clarity tonight and this allows their exemplary vocals to ring out. Harmonies, at times, are really on the button. Well drilled ? You can almost count the rehearsal room hours. They’re as sure-footed as a cat on a dolphin.

I arrive expecting not so much and when they exit I curse my luck: another damn band to have to love and champion and follow to the ends of the earth. Balls. Like I need any more. Ho hum. But hey, this lot strut with uncommon potential. ‘Cradle’ sounds so damn familiar with its nursery rhyme trik-trak but the highlight is the dizzying ‘The Last Drop’, which takes flight over several changes of pace and mood, carrying with it a sense of glorious melodrama that recalls Muse. In fact, so huge a three piece are they that other exponents of rock’s finest formation come to mind. Forgive me for seeming to be wilfully contrary but join me back in the early 90s, if you will : if the likes of Flinch, the wonderfulSidi Bou Said and Boston's mighty - and mightily reformed, so give thanks - Scarce mean anything to you, look in. The Joy Formidable are everything.

After their staggering support act, it’s like being at college in the 1980s when all your mates had stories about main acts being “blown off” by the support. Only tonight there’s at least some substance to the claim. Unlike the alleged shaming of Bon Jovi (FM!), Simple Minds (Magazine) and REM (Blur – I was there and it didn’t happen), Howling Bells are at the very least exposed tonight by an unashamedly hungrier warm-up. There are simply too many things that don’t work in their clunky set and it’s surprising and upsetting. The opening (“Radio wars are coming …”) doesn’t work at all well and the first two songs proper – ‘Treasure Hunt’ and ‘It Ain’t You’- are weirdly uninvolving, not helped by Juanita trying to be a pop starlet, minus guitar - a questionable new approach. I see evidence of attendance at the Bryan Ferry/Debbie Harry School of Dance. There are cheers when she eventually straps on her guitar and I have to say, I’m not sure Pop suits Howling Bells, a band whose debut sold itself on a dose of blackened, noir-ish guitar-slinging. Juanita, peachy as she undoubtedly is, has the pins to sell the mini dress, sure. I just think I preferred her when she hid behind guitar and jeans and swung that Strat low around her hips.

Tonight, these fripperies aside, Howling Bells waste the goodwill of a packed house through nothing other than piss-poor stagecraft. Juanita, blessed with dusky beauty and purity of voice, dares not test the apparent ardour of her fans and dithers like a nervy lamb. Once again, as I realise she has done every single time I’ve seen them, she timidly questions our commitment. “You’re very quiet tonight.” F*** me! A little, maybe, yes. But I’ve not seen a cool crowd that doesn’t eventually pick itself up given some encouragement. And things do indeed pick up, but, unsurprisingly, it’s either for songs from the first album or the two from the new one that people have had a chance to get to know – namely ‘Into the Chaos’ and ‘Cities Burning Down’. But what will always flatten any atmosphere that’s gathering pace is a band who whip it up with an old favourite (‘Blessed Night’ and ‘Setting Sun’ genuinely light the fuse) and then deflate it the next minute with something new and unremarkable.

The whole evening seesaws like this throughout and it could go either way right until the end when a dazzling ‘Cities Burning Down’ hits a real nerve and we’re all locked in. Exit. Cue huge cheers, relief, genuine calls for more. And they return, but only to play a short, bleepy blob of electronica that no-one f***ing knows. And, as if suddenly aware of their mishandling, exit stage left like they’ve been rumbled. Up come the house lights and everyone – everyone – looks around, looks at each other with genuine bemusement and disappointment. Unbelievable. Call it what you want: pig-headedness, immaturity, self-indulgence. There’s little worse than watching a band play to an audience who want to go with them but who ultimately, through no fault of their own, end up feeling … well, nervous and disorientated. Like a first date that ends awkwardly and minus kisses … we drift away, frustrated and confused.

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