In 2006, Howling Bells’ eponymous debut was one of the records of the year. Since then they’ve hardly torn up the industry. But new album Heartstrings sounds like it could be a way back into the indie mainstream.
Date: June 1, 2014
Venue: Bodega, Nottingham
Things just got weird at the Bodega. Howling Bells walk on stage to complete silence. It’s an eerie, almost embarrassing shun for the band who, although remain quiet themselves, must be wondering what the hell is wrong with these people quietly stood before them. Even the support band got a few welcoming yelps.
Disconcerted somewhat, the band simply engage their instruments and launch into new song Paris. Thankfully, the crowd prove that they aren’t all zombies and give it the applause it deserves.
Ok, so normal gig proceedings have been resumed. Thank God for that, because that was one of the weirdest things your reviewer has seen in his many years of attending gigs.
So then, about Howling Bells. They’re an indie rock four-piece that formed in Sydney in 2004, and gained a slice of notoriety in 2006 upon the release of the eponymous debut record. Gigwise also pitched lead singer Juanita Stein in the limelight by crowning her with the title of “Sexiest woman in rock” around the time of their second LP, 2009’s Radio Wars, and their support slot with Coldplay in the States in the same year.
But largely, they’ve spend most of their career unnoticed, which is a real shame because they have some ear-tinglingly spectacular tunes.
New album Heartstrings is plugged, with the majority of the set promoting its gigantic riffs and Juanita’s dulcet tones. She’s like Sophie Ellis-Bextor gone rock, with the kind of voice made for a mic and the kind of eyes that send men wild. She looks like a combination of Rachel Stevens and Maria from Coronation Street (Ask your mum), a real Aussie beaut, dressed in a psychedelic shirt and leggings.
The afore-mentioned Paris kick starts the set – and the audience – with some echoic guitar mastery before it settles into a relaxed slacker groove which sets the tone of the set.
Paper Heart changes this tone. It’s stripped back to reveal Juanita’s crystalline vocals and a simple, haunting piano.
Upping the ante again is Cities Burning Down from Radio Wars, which sounds epic, while Setting Sun is not a cover of The Chemical Brothers’ classic, but a heady mix of melody and sweet, sweet noise.
Juanita doesn’t say much. A few words about an in-store gig they did earlier, and announcing that “Our record is out tomorrow”, before enticing everyone to buy it via a stunning Reverie.
Low Happening is met with the biggest cheer. It was their clarion call back in 2006, all clanging guitars, slinky hooks and a knock-out chorus, and it’s still their best track if truth be told.
By now the hitherto sleepy Sunday night audience are hollowing loudly for an encore, and the band oblige by playing one last track, Broken Bones, a song that begins all jangle-pop before exploding into a cacophony of noise.
From hushed beginnings to an explosive ending, Howling Bells deserve a place in 2014’s indie zeitgeist.