Plumbiferous Media

Radio Wars - Howling Bells

Jul 30th 2009
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Radio Wars - Howling BellsHowling Bells
Radio Wars
Score: 52

Despite hav­ing been active since 2004, Howl­ing Bells released what is only its sec­ond album this week, fol­low­ing up on its debut, self-titled album of 2006. This dis­par­i­ty in expe­ri­ence - inex­pe­ri­ence pro­duc­ing albums and expe­ri­ence work­ing as a band - shows clear­ly on Radio Wars. While the tracks are near­ly always well con­struct­ed at least as far as inde­pen­dent ele­ments go, the tracks as a whole are monot­o­nous, unin­ter­est­ing, and sleep-inducing.

Juani­ta Stein’s voice car­ries the same curi­ous com­bi­na­tion of weight and sub­tle­ty com­mon to many bands which mix an elec­tron­ic aes­thet­ic with indie-styled music. And while hers is unique enough to dis­tin­guish Howl­ing Bells from oth­er bands of this sort, they don’t quite suc­ceed at mak­ing it ter­ri­bly inter­est­ing, ham­per­ing it with the dis­tract­ing back­ing vocals that appear on sev­er­al tracks, includ­ing “Trea­sure Hunt” and “Ms. Bel­l’s Song.” Stein’s vocals also often seem odd­ly mut­ed, pre­vent­ing them from ris­ing above the rest of the music (which amounts to a back­drop of sound) or help­ing the band to dis­tin­guish one moment of Radio Wars from the next. Com­bined with promi­nent rep­e­ti­tion, this lack of gen­uine ener­gy leaves the vocals rather lack­lus­ter. It’s not that they’re bad­ly done - they’re sim­ply uninteresting.

As with their last album, Howl­ing Bells has done a com­mend­able job writ­ing lyrics for Radio Wars, but many of the best lines slip irre­triev­ably into the some­what dull sound. Slight­ly gener­ic but well-writ­ten lyrics like “Dreamt of ris­ing water / It was the love that filled the sea” mix with more orig­i­nal lines like “We are the key that fits / We are the world that radi­ates,” cre­at­ing an intrigu­ing col­lec­tion of images and ideas. How­ev­er, this strong lyri­cal base is weak­ened by rep­e­ti­tion; lines such as “The city’s burn­ing down again” are extreme­ly overused.

Radio Wars presents a num­ber of instru­men­tal lines that are tru­ly ben­e­fi­cial to the album. Sad­ly, these moments come too lit­tle too late. While “Trea­sure Hunt” is ini­tial­ly sat­is­fy­ing, with the synth part adding nec­es­sary inven­tive ele­ments to what oth­er­wise is a pow­er­ful but remark­ably sim­ple track, it soon begins to drag. The track is fol­lowed by “Cities Burn­ing Down,” the sec­ond longest track on the album, which, despite the off­beat accents com­ing from the drum­mer, remains uncom­pelling. The album con­tin­ues to regress until it meets its low­est point, “Nightin­gale,” which is sim­ply for­get­table, and while “Let’s Be Kids” pro­vides a dif­fer­ent sound from the pre­vi­ous four tracks, it makes the lis­ten­er long for anoth­er “Trea­sure Hunt.” The album then con­tin­ues to drag on with decent­ly con­struct­ed but dull elements.

“Into the Chaos,” the eighth of ten tracks, is the first that tru­ly sup­ports itself through all of the rep­e­ti­tion Howl­ing Bells seems to love, sim­ply because it picks a more active tem­po and uses sig­nif­i­cant­ly more intri­cate drum and gui­tar lines which remain inter­est­ing through the track. Next is “Dig­i­tal Hearts,” which fol­lows “Into the Chaos” not only chrono­log­i­cal­ly but method­i­cal­ly, retain­ing the same sense of speed that push­es the track through its monotony.

Radio Wars con­tains many of the ele­ments of a good album, includ­ing inter­est­ing, well-inte­grat­ed vocals and pol­ished sound; how­ev­er, when Howl­ing Bells com­bined these parts, they man­aged to leave the album some­what lack­ing. Radio Wars is a mid­dling album, but not much more: it rarely har­ness­es the pos­si­bil­i­ties of any of its ele­ments, and is left odd­ly tire­some. It’s quite evi­dent that Howl­ing Bells has lost some of the ener­gy it pos­sessed on its first album - the sopho­more slump has reared its rather dis­ap­point­ing head. Nev­er­the­less, Radio Wars isn’t bad: it’s pass­able. But Howl­ing Bells could do much better. 

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