The early 1970s hard rock sound (popularized by Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Aerosmith, and Queen, among others) left an indelible stamp on the music industry. In the decades since, literally hundreds of bands have taken a page or two from the originals. Unfortunately, the vast majority of acts amount to little more than redundant emulators who lack the diversity and songwriting of their influences. Luckily, power quintet Howlin Rain is different. While they sometimes veer to close to familiarity, overall, they pack their third LP, The Russian Wilds, with strong musicianship, surprising timbres, welcoming diversity, and catchy melodies.
Founded by singer/guitarist Ethan Miller in 2004, the group also includes Raj Ojha (drums and percussion), Cyrus Comiskey (bass), Joel Robinow (keyboards, guitar, and vocals) and Isaiah Mitchell (guitar and vocals). Of the record, Miller states, “we were really trying to blend Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Under the guidance of revered producer Rick Rubin, Howlin Rain infuse The Running Wilds with adventurous arrangements, complex sections, a wide array of instruments, and some truly intense passages. At first, it may feel like just another hard rock copycat, but with subsequent listens, one can sense how the record is like a diamond in the ruff in a bloated genre.
Opener “Self Made Man” mixes psychedelic guitar tones with classic rock immediacy. Miller’s voice is appropriately biting and demanding, and the falsetto harmonies fit well. The track evolves into a lively jam worthy of the Allman Brothers Band (complete with vintage keyboard soloing). “Phantom in the Valley” is addictive because of how its affective, repetitious guitar riff accompanies the closing of each verse. Brilliantly, the track changes midway into a Santana-esque Latin jam (including horns and percussion). It’s wholly unexpected and quite fascinating.
“Strange Thunder,” with its lush acoustic chords and touching vocals and words, begins as a warm ballad. Eventually, more layers and attitude are added, and it’s clear that this band loves to rock out. “Walking Through Stone” really amps up the psychedelic sounds, and “…Still Walking, Still Stone” includes some wonderfully constructed piano playing (as well as more stellar guitar solos, of course).
While all the songs on The Russian Wilds are enjoyable, they all kind of sound a bit similar; however, there is one track that’s rather atypical, and it’s by far the best of the lot. “Collage” is a beautiful piece constructed with wall-of-sound harmonies, lush guitar chords and arpeggios, and poetic lyrics. Actually, it’s easy to imagine it as a lost, acoustic Supertramp song (the style is similar and the harmonies definitely bring Roger Hodgson to mind). This track is completely unexpected in the context of the album, but that’s what makes it special. It’s easily the greatest bit of songwriting here, and Howlin Rain should definitely do more tracks like it.
Howlin Rain has crafted a superb album with The Russian Wilds. The group manages to rise above many of their stereotypical, unoriginal contemporaries by featuring plenty of surprises and innovation (although there is still a very recognizable grounding throughout). Fans of the genre will definitely enjoy the record, and those who feel the genre has nothing new to offer may just be proven wrong.