Howlin Rain: The Russian Wilds

Californian psych-rock combo make merry with all that ‘difficult third album’ nonsense.

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The four-year gap since last album Magnificent Fiend suggests that Howlin Rain have been on something of a hiatus. Or maybe there were pressing things to dislodge from their system.

A 2008 EP consisted of extended jams – one being a distorted 15-minute version of the Wings song Wild Life – which were direct echoes of leader Ethan Miller’s previous outfit, the heavily psych-leaning Comets On Fire. Was this some kind of identity crisis? Was he publicly pining for the band that he’d broken up a couple of years earlier?

But at the back end of 2010 came another EP. The Good Life was a trimmer, more focused beast, all burning rock, mad gospel and a funky Hendrix cover. Now comes The Russian Wilds, a record that serves as the best expression yet of Miller’s original idea to create Howlin Rain music to “sing along with while drinking whiskey in the bathtub”.

It’s a big, splashy, jubilant album made in the finest West Coast tradition. Miller himself has cited Hendrix, Steely Dan and Springsteen as key signposts for the album, though he appears to have travelled far wider. Produced by Tim Green and “shaped and perfected” by Rick Rubin, the man who signed the band to American Recordings, there’s the unmistakable imprint of CSNY in the swirling harmonies of Cherokee Werewolf. While a muggy cover of The James Gang’s Collage carries the scented perfumery of Neil Young in his Laurel Canyon idyll.

But what’s most striking about Howlin Rain is their extraordinary grasp of timeless rock dynamics. There are great globs of Creedence, Humble Pie and the Grateful Dead clotting the grooves, but never does this sound like a homage to some glorified pre-punk past. This five-piece are fortified and enriched by the music of the late 60s and early 70s without being enslaved by it. The breadth of ideas is dizzying.

Dark Side begins all Arthur Lee-weird then builds into a heaving guitar blow-out. Strange Thunder patters in like a slice of esoterica from David Crosby’s first album before exploding outwards into nearly nine minutes of searing guitar throb. Indeed, the recent addition of former Earthless guitarist Isaiah Mitchell has given the band serious added oomph, best heard on tumultuous epic Self Made Man and the truly mind-bending Phantom In The Valley. The latter, much like Howlin Rain themselves, takes more hidden turns than you’d think possible.

If only all records were as rapturous as this.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.