Howling Bells blow the lid off the Hare & Hounds in Birmingham
The Hare & Hounds in King's Heath is one of Birmingham's most underrated venues, so it's quite fitting that it would play host to one of the most underrated bands of the past decade.
Howling Bells @ The Hare & Hounds, Birmingham (03/06/14)
The first time I saw Howling Bells live, I was par of a (now defunct) progressive rock band called 'Dead Letter Office' (yes I cribbed the name from an REM album), and we were the opening act on the bill at the cavernous Barfly (the one with the worst toilets this side of the V festival). Throughout my entire, failed musical career (sic) I played countless opening slots, and nine times out of ten, the headliners treated me and my bandmates with the kind of indifferent distain one would generally offer to a small piece of poo on the bottom of one's shoe. Howling Bells were one of the few exceptions that proved the rule, hell they even let us pilfer their rider. So it was with no small amount of bias that I set about reviewing their return to the great (again, sic) second city. Still, I've always been one to call a spade a spade and a shit a shit, and Howling Bells were neither on Tuesday night, in fact, they were something approaching transcendent. Support act 'Climbing Boys' dealt in perfectly serviceable BRMC style garage rock, with an attraction to reverb bordering on the fetichistic. They were having obvious troubles on the night with their lead guitarist's amp, but technical difficulties aside, there was little to really hook into. They certainly looked the part (all leather and brylcreem), but the music was more than a little repetitive and not once song really stood out for me. Still, as an amuse-bouche for what was to follow, they at least matched the Bells general aesthetic, an aesthetic helped in no small part by the fact the stage lighting at the Hare & Hounds swamps all who step beneath it in a stark, David Lynchian crimson. The headliners took to the stage amidst little fanfare, but there was still a certain unmistakeable gravitas, and assured confidence, that translated effortlessly into the opening number 'Paris', the song which also opens Heartstrings. With an opening riff that brings to mind 'Shine on you Crazy Diamond' by way of The Stone Roses, Paris is a song that perfectly captures its titular city's gothic grandeur. The sound was top-notch too, with Glenn Moule's drums especially coming across with whip-crack clarity, and the gorgeous Juanita Stein's velvety soft voice sitting perfectly in the mix. My hats off to the engineer. The setlist was pulled primarily from the bands wonderful new album, 'Heartstrings' and their equally wonderful self titled debut, almost neglecting both 2009's 'Radio Wars' and 2011's 'The Loudest Engine', save for both albums redeeming tracks. That's not to say the 'middle' albums were complete write-offs, they just failed to capture the dark spark of the debut. Heartstrings however, not only catches, but almost matches its spiritual fore-bearers sense of drama and elegance, so it's no surprise the 4-piece chose to stick to what they do best; darkly tinged Americana, which is equal parts PJ Harvey and Velvet Underground, with a hint of modern cynicism. Highlights of the set for me included the still rapturous 'Setting Sun', which seems to have grown even more anthemic with age, the encore of early single 'Broken Bones' and the beautiful 'Nightingale', by far and away the best song from Radio Wars. The real revelations of the night however, came from the new songs. 'Original Sin' might just be the best song the band has ever written, and it carries even more subtle menace live than it does on record. The wonderful 'Your Love' too sounds even more dramatic shorn of the recorded versions cavernous reverb, and whilst the piano-led 'Paper Heart' had to be played to a backing track (they did apologise though), there was something quite special about seeing the other band members 'sit one out' as they let Juanita take to the mic alone. In all it was a confident, near faultless set from a band who finally appear to be comfortable in their own skin. Between song patter was sparse, but there was an amusing aside about an acid trip and a plea from the crowd warranted Juanita to promise a return visit to Birmingham. It couldn't possibly come too soon.