Howlin Rain

The Russian Wilds

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Howlin Rain frontman/guitarist and songwriter Ethan Miller emerges four years after 2008's Magnificent Fiend with a slew of new bandmates -- keyboardist Joel Robinow is the only holdover -- and working with Rick Rubin as executive producer. Howlin Rain are indeed a different animal than in their previous incarnation. The influences from the '60s and '70s remain even more abundant here, but are spread out in meticulously constructed songs -- even if they don't initially sound like it. With Earthless guitarist Isaiah Mitchell, drummer Raj Ojha, and bassist Cyrus Comiskey in the fold, the creative leap Howlin Rain have made is surprising. Miller is more disciplined as a writer, arranger, and vocalist. His voice, no longer an instrument that scorches the ears (though it can), borrows from Steve Marriott, Uriah Heep's David Byron, and Deep Purple's Ian Gillan. With Robinow and Mitchell on backing vocals and two female guests (Susan Appe and Mandy Green), the harmonies on these rough-and-rowdy tracks carry their melodies more easily and allow Miller to be more expressive rather than just ragged. The album, selected from more than three hours' worth of material, fits together seamlessly. Heavy guitars and drums, fuzz, effects, organs, Mellotrons, numerous textural elements, and wide-ranging dynamics suggest everything from psych, hard '60s and '70s rock, blues, and even R&B. While opener "Self Made Man" is a straight blues-rocker -- with Miller and Mitchell matching as fine foils on guitar -- "Phantom in the Valley" evokes Quicksilver Messenger Service's acid-drenched narratives that evolve until they transform into early Santana's Latin rock by the last section, complete with a horn section and hand drums. "Cherokee Werewolf," with its funky Rhodes piano and call-and-response female chorus, suggests not only the Humble Pie of Smokin' and Big Brother & the Holding Company, but Little Feat's 1969 debut album with dreamier guitars. "Dark Side" is pure rockist strut circa 1972, while "Beneath Wild Wings" is an intricately constructed nod toward the kind of rock & roll-R&B fusion that was typical in Great Britain in the early '70s. "Walking Through Stone" is overblown, bluesy riff rock with Mitchell pushing his guitar into the red. All of of this is strange and extremely attractive, especially since it shouldn't add up. When the most contemporary tune here is a gorgeous cover of the James Gang's spacy, lilting "Collage," you know you're time-traveling. For all of his obsession with classic rock, Miller is a hell of a songwriter. He combines elements that normally sprawl in tight constructions that sound loose and relaxed. In his new work, passion and feel meet dynamic and melody in equal balance (this is in no small part due to Tim Green's fabulous production). The Russian Wilds is Howlin Rain's most accessible recording, but enormous ambition and musical mastery of rock & roll's mighty past make it an essential one, too.

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