[sic] Magazine

Howling Bells – Radio Wars

So striking that it can sweep you away from the very first second, ‘Treasure Hunt‘, the opening track off Howling Bells’ second album, although it won’t at first seem so, acts as a double glazing to protect you from the flaws of ‘Radio Wars‘. So pacey, with such style is this opening track that your expectations are raised to an even higher bar than the one set after a fond affair with the band’s self-titled debut. . Perhaps you might have been better off being swept away from the off. For with repeated listens comes a growing awareness of the dents in this highly-polished work.

What lures you towards 2006’s ‘Howling Bells‘ is a folksy charm combined almost exclusively with a glossy atmosphere and the stylish, sexy charms of Juanita Stern’s vocals. But it wasn’t just sound-wise that helped this debut excel – it was the album’s modesty. At the time, Howling Bells were just three ordinary Australians with a talent. Deep down they knew it but the output of their first work was so authentic that it made the album something truly special, something grossly understated to this day.

But chances of building on this triumph are slim, almost completely because of the lack of identity that should be carrying ‘Radio Wars‘ the whole way through. Modesty hasn’t even been replaced by self-belief or even arrogance, something that would have still worked. At times, such as during ‘Treasure Hunt‘, you hear a band still fresh-faced, carrying momentum. But elsewhere is the sound of a band lyrically out of their depth, sonically confused. What you hear isn’t necessarily a blend of charming folk and compressed pop, instead it’s the stepping onto a dangerous middle ground, somewhere Howling Bells clearly aren’t comfortable.

Only at the moving, atmospheric ‘Golden Web‘ and thereafter does the album sound genuine at any point. Production is refined and varnished the whole time, but that prevents us from ever looking into just what exactly is the common theme, the common feel of the record. ‘Let’s Be Kids‘ has true class, soothing you with relaxed vibes and slowly pounded drums. But even with pre-implemented opinions aside, it sounds false. There’s a real lack of enjoyment and it’s stark naked for all to see.

One moment Stern and co. will swimmingly ease into an acoustic-led number (’Ms. Bells’ Song‘) and the next they’ll drive forward with a pompous, stadium-suitable effort (’Radio Wars Theme‘, the only truly poor song on the album). Indeed, you can draw praise from every track, particularly the shimmering, spellbinding ‘Cities Burning Down‘ and the bravest, most heart-stopping stage of the album, the combination of ‘Into The Chaos‘ and ‘Digital Hearts‘. But pretty much every song has a letdown, be it lyrics, over-production or that ever growing feeling of indecision that you sense.

Indecision is the prime flaw. Even the underwhelming artwork shows four conflicting shades instead of portraying that this album was a collective effort, which it was. But you end up presuming that collectiveness led to conflict and that the recording of ‘Radio Wars’ was a tiresome affair, with each song written on a completely different occasion. Ultimately, Howling Bells could have done with caring less, then they’d have produced another uplifting record.