When Sydney's Howling Bells relocated to London to hook up with British producer Ken Nelson and record their self-titled debut album in 2005, the result was a chaotic and stirring jumble of styles. Juanita Stein's vocals jolted imperiously against her brother Joel's spiny guitar licks, introducing a blend of Victorian folk and Brontёan glower to the band's driving rock'n'roll, like The Unthanks with riffs. It was an exciting first statement from a band that was, like so many others, attempting the Herculean feat of reviving the past and remoulding it for the present. Unfortunately, Howling Bells' synth-tinged follow-up Radio Wars and now The Loudest Engine haven't quite been able to recapture the sultry fire lit by their debut. The former was an experiment in electro textures that some appreciated more than others. But the worrying thing about the band's latest album is that, on paper, it bears all the hallmarks of a genuine stab at returning to the twisted folk-rock drawing board, and from that perspective it seems to fail as much as it succeeds.
At first it's difficult to pinpoint exactly where The Loudest Engine strays off course. Certainly, the band's chemistry is still intact on the album's finest moments: lead single Into the Sky is fully laden with momentum and hooks, Stein's voice stalking across the track like a hungry lioness, perfectly in sync with the band's growling rock'n'roll. The Wilderness is another rollicking number, its concluding guitar squall perfectly capturing the twitchy frustration brought on by the song's subject, insomnia; and closing track Invisible's deep, doleful guitar arpeggio elicits the same sense of unease as some of the band's best early tracks.
The fundamental problem seems to lie in Howling Bells' relocation to the Nevada desert (and their partnership with first-time producer Mark Stoermer of The Killers) to record the album. The claustrophobic menace of the band's debut fit them like a glove, but the widescreen, dust-flecked stylings of their latest effort feel laboured and, at worst, contrived. On the likes of Charlatan, The Faith and the title-track, the Steins aim to take the best of vintage acid rock, but all they resemble is sonic tourists in a foreign land, and the less said about the Kate Bush-aping misstep of Gold Suns, White Guns, the better.
By trying to interpret a whole new landscape and atmosphere, Howling Bells have compromised their strengths in an awkward attempt to force themselves into a new style. Instead of capturing the essence of the dusty trail, on this album they are struggling just to avoid the middle of the road.