Howlin' Rain - The Russian Wilds
By: Rob Gannon
This is no way to treat the grand Comets On Fire legacy. Where once Ethan Miller consistently channelled the rich spirit of decades-old San Franciscan psyche, now his current vehicle Howlin’ Rain floats adrift on very muddled waters.
Some of the blame must surely fall on iconic producer Rick Rubin, who was reputedly extremely hands-on during The Russian Wilds‘ arduous three-year recording. Tellingly, like rats off a sinking ship, the majority of the Howlin’ Rain band slowly departed during this time too, leaving only Miller and keyboardist/guitarist Joel Robinow ever-present since the group’s last retro-rocker Magnificent Fiend.
Plundering most of the 60s and early 70s for influence, The Russian Wilds also clocks in at over an hour. Acceptable, expected even during the original advent of psyche rock, notable modern statements of such length however can be counted on one hand. What was hailed then under a banner of sprawling opulence is now quickly labelled as indulgent and bloated.
Overdriven rock cliché incarnate “Self Made Man” opens with pronounced peels of Black Sabbath guitar, or does so at least like one-time touring mates Black Mountain ripping off Sabbath. No great issue there, except the track then throws in some studious, Santana-brand funk and meditative passages that later erupt like Audioslave engaging in unspeakable acts of fret-love.
Next, that same overblown Santana groove meets Eagles epic meets Meat Loaf bombast on “Phantom In The Valley”. An exercise then in suspect references and righteous rock posturing, it’s a track that, in part, recalls the sort of comedy rock Tenacious D used to knock out for fun, only devoid of all humour – all seven lengthy minutes of it. That Miller also turns in a vocal here that sounds like that fellow from Maroon 5 doesn’t really surprise at this point.
Remarkably, things get worse on “Can’t Satisfy Me Now”. Oh-so American, it greedily reaches for stadium-sized, classic MOR rock, rampant guitar solo courtesy of Earthless axe-man Isaiah Mitchell and all, and instead repeatedly falls on its face. The musical equivalent of that stereotypical fat loud-mouth tourist in a fanny pack, it’s such an abortion that it must simply be a case of this sort of thing not translating to these shores. Otherwise it defies explanation.
The Russian Wilds doesn’t get much better from here, but, perhaps mercifully, the worst is over. For example, all things considered, “Cherokee Werewolf” isn’t entirely terrible. Cruising along quite pleasantly on smoky and echoing guitar shards, Miller then unfortunately and speedily spoils things with an ill-judged funky croon and meandering Zeppelin-esque theatrics. Happily, during the chorus at least, the track does settle into a competent Creedence-type rocker.
On the dull “Strange Thunder” Miller probably thought the band were writing the new “Stairway To Heaven”. As you may be able to guess by now – they weren’t. The faithful Fleetwood Mac-athon “Collage” fails to excite, but isn’t bad in its own kind of way. And the least said about the spandex-clad lounge rockers “Dark Side” and “Beneath Wild Wing” the better.
There’s supposedly an album’s worth of material from The Russian Wilds‘ demo process on the cutting room floor somewhere. The mind boggles as to what it could contain. Yet, maybe here amongst the offcuts is where Miller’s heart and soul lie, because God knows they aren’t to be found here. Gathered and sifted, perhaps Miller can yet salvage his Howlin’ Rain project … and the first step would be to swiftly show Mr Rubin the door.
Advised downloads: “Cherokee Werewolf” and “Collage”.
The Russian Wilds is released 12th March 2012 on Agitated.