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Magnificent Fiend

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Album Review

If Magnificent Fiend, the second album by Howlin Rain, sounds like a different band made the record, it's not the brown windowpane working its sickly magic on you, it's in many ways an accurate perception. Howlin Rain is Ethan Miller's side project when he's not playing with his "other band," Comets on Fire. HR's self-titled debut was released in 2006. It was well-received for its taut, simple song structures that evoked everything from the Grateful Dead to harder, more riff-laden big rock & roll power plays. It was loud, proud, and topped off with just a touch of country and blues. Miller, bassist Ian Gradek, and rhythm guitarist Mike Jackson remain from the band that made that album, while drummer Garrett Goddard and multi-instrumentalist Joel Robinow (keyboards, harmony vocals, and "horn") complete the quintet. There are a few guests filling out the proceedings as well: Matt Waters and Scott Knippelmeir guest on saxophone and trombone, respectively, and Eli Eckert participates on guitar and bass in places. The music here is much more complex. These are still identifiable as rock songs, but there are spaces in them that evoke the harder edges of improvising rock acts like early Steppenwolf, Delaney & Bonnie (at their most rockist), and even Quicksilver Messenger Service. But this isn't necessarily a throwback group at all, and Magnificent Fiend is its own affair. It is louder, wilder, bigger, and more live sounding than the records made by any of those bands. These songs are knottier, building on the more elemental riffs and melodies of the previous set and creating something denser, more immediate, and menacing in the process.

Check "Dancers at the End of Time," with its direct lift of the title from Michael Moorcock's novel of the same name. It begins with a bone-crushing blast of guitars in wah-wah overdrive, as an organ pumps up the rhythm section before it retreats for a few moments into a simple chord line as a feint. As the band comes back in to create the space for the song's lyrics and melodic line — and Miller is no less a completely shambolic if wildly expressive vocalist than he has ever been — all hell breaks loose and Miller enters at full throttle. The feeling of San Francisco's heavier side during the late '60s comes screaming out of the gate. There are neat little quotes from tunes like "Badge," as well as the Dead's set-up moments where the guitars could find each other in the ether of the jam and push the entire tune into another terrain — but it never really goes there, just toys with it. The album is focused; on the harder jams, it all serves to bring the tunes out of the sprawl with as much power, force, and volume as possible. Recorded in the same studio that Tom Waits used for Bone Machine, a similar rawness — courtesy of recording engineer Tim Green — is present in its grooves, but it isn't nearly as menacing. If anything, this is a brighter recording than its predecessor, a fine if less economical one musically. Tracks like "Calling Lightning, Pt. 2," "Goodbye Ruby," and the gradually building "El Rey" feel like a stone cross between the early, more musically and soulfully adventurous Widespread Panic and the harder edge of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. Miller walks unafraid into a sonic terrain where a little chaos and rockist posturing enter the mix freely. Other cuts, such as the more roots-oriented, murkier, and psychedelically dreamy "Nomads," weave guitar lines across channels, as blues phrasing ebbs edgily into folk, country, and drifting free-form breeziness, all meld and groove. Album closer "Riverboat" traces the same veins that the Dead (as played by the Meat Puppets) used in wrapping themselves around Southern rock tropes like those offered by the Marshall Tucker Band (easily the most experimental and musically restless of the acts that boomed out of the region from the 1970s). Yeah, this is post-hippie music played with fuel injection, hedonism, and teeth. It's a tighter, less primitive album than its predecessor, but as such, it has a lot more to offer as well.


Formed: 2004 in Oakland, CA

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '00s, '10s

Unapologetically influenced by the strong but easygoing grooves of West Coast '70s rock, Howlin Rain represented something of a change of pace for guitarist and singer Ethan Miller, who previously fronted the psychedelic noise rock ensemble Comets on Fire. After the recording of Comets on Fire's final album, Avatar, in 2006, Miller was eager to explore the more melodic direction the group had begun pursuing, and with bassist Ian Gradek (who had known Miller since high school) and drummer John Moloney...
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Magnificent Fiend, Howlin Rain
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