Howling Bells - Manchester Academy 3
Much better. Oh, the joy of having back those who arrive gleaming with infinite promise - before, that is, they divert and indulge themselves for that oh-so difficult second album. When Australia’s Howling Bells emerged in 2006 with a sharp, self-titled debut that leavened its semi-gothisms with an acute pop sensibility, those of us who like to tap our foot as much as we like to brood were left rolling on the floor in deep, dark joy. It was some debut and the UK fell for them; the band de-camped to London and played wherever and whenever. We loved ‘em, we did. Until album number two...
They returned with Radio Wars and the faithful’s collective brow furrowed. Success and more studio cash had led Howling Bells to leap straight from their ‘Mucho Promise’ phase into phase 2, that rites of passage for so many young bands, commonly referred to as the ‘So What Does This Button Do?’ phase. A couple of gems aside, its electro experimentation seemed uncomfortably at odds with the swamp-blues burr of that glorious debut. They toured with The Joy Formidable and played an awkward, nervy gig in this very building, not helped by the spoils being artfully purloined by their emerging support band. Posters around the building confirm the Welsh trio’s assault on the Bells’ fan base paid dividends: next month they play the considerably larger Academy 2. Tonight’s headliners are upstairs in the ‘cosy’ confines of Academy 3 but, more tellingly, they play just one song from Radio Wars.
So here we are again, but this time it’s personal and then some. Howling Bells enter phase three, commonly known as ‘Hey! Weren’t We Supposed To Be F***ing Good?’ They do so propelled by an album (The Loudest Engine) whose raw simplicity aids a return to the beefy tunefulness of their debut. Tonight, rather than awkwardly shuffle onstage, they stride on, smiling and waving and slink into new album opener ‘Charlatan’. As it fades away, they take a set-list gamble and career through ‘Blessed Night’, the beloved juggernaut of their back catalogue and Manchester goes “Whoa!” If I didn’t know better, I’d sense Something Happening Here.
And I’d be right. Howling Bells are a sensation tonight, possessed not so much with wild fury – they’re still too spaced out to really bite down hard - but with a steely focus and a conviction that compels. Half a dozen diamonds from their debut and most of the new album makes for a deep and engaging mix. ‘Setting Sun’ and ‘A Ballad for the Broken Hearted’ sing to the stars. ‘Low Happening’, a welcome pearl of an encore, bludgeons. Stage right, Joel is explosive and dextrous: these are the riffs you dreamt up as you drifted off to sleep as a teenager. I’ll remember that one in the morning, you thought. Yeah, right. You chose sleep. Joel got up and plugged in. That’s why he’s up there playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band and you’re not.
Default attention, of course, goes to Juanita. All eyes gravitate stage centre where, black-clad and pint-sized, she sets about melting the windows. She manages volume and vibrato with rare skill. You'd struggle to name a current indie pop vamp who could match her. All of a sudden she’s a devastating live proposition. Between songs, she’s all quiet charm: "Good evening, Manchest-oh!" In performance, she loses herself to the moment like never before. During ‘A Ballad for the Broken Hearted’, she takes flight with that line from the shadows, David Lynch in a minor chord: “And I will scream, just to get you to hold me down…” Ooh-ee.
The new stuff makes a play for our hearts. Only time will tell if it has teeth but its high spots mesmerise. ‘Secrets’ is more bittersweet evidence of their pop chops and ‘Into the Sky’ is a soaring climax. As their aesthetic starts to take root – deep, pulsing beats; skittering psychedelia; dreamscapes of heartbreak – their identity solidifies and Howling Bells gradually edge into sharper focus, morphing into what they’d once threatened to dare to become. Magical, still. Grab a hold and dream along.