HOWLING BELLS – HOWLING BELLS (2006)
It’s been widely accepted for some time now that “indie” has become a completely meaningless term, yet still the notion and concept persist.
Leaving aside the factual definition of a small record company’s business model and distribution method, the idea of indie-as-genre first evolved from Stiff, Factory, Step Forward and unnumbered others taking the practical step of recording, financing and distributing their own music to maintain it on their own terms and to pre-empt likely, though by no means inevitable, rejection by the majors of sounds that were in the main untutored and untroubled by anxiety over chart placings or courting the approval of a music establishment that was even sleazier and more putrid than had been apparent at the time.
At this point, the sound of indie labels was a loose, labyrynthine but endlessly rewarding aggregation of punk, electronics, R & B (another term to have since mutated beyond recognition), funk and myriad other items tipped into the soup.
Sometime around 1985, the definition was put on a far tighter rein – mirroring the retreat of the best mainstream pop from loose-limbed adventurism to lumpen, profit-chasing garishness – and indie came to mean guitar-based music in thrall to either the Byrds and post-Cale Velvet Underground on one hand or Captain Beefheart on the other. The former definition became preeminent and solidified at the end of the decade with the precipitous rise of the preposterously overrated Stone Roses, a good band – nothing more, nothing less – completely unequal to the ludicrous hosannas made on their behalf.
With the arrival of those who haplessly aped the even more overestimated Oasis, what had previously set this music apart from the mainstream – adventure, openness, empathy, quest – had been whittled down to a proscribed set of approved sounds and postures which resulted in utterly unremarkable music and which came to be known by the 21st century as landfill indie, though I crave the indulgence of offering my own coinage – I called it Gumby indie, as its oafish grunting unavoidably reminded me of the same in the Monty Python creations.
By the middle of the millennium’ first decade, Arctic Monkeys were perceived as the stationery-shovers but while they were several cuts above the sludge, owing in no small part to Alex Turner’s lyrical dexterity, they still weren’t quite what was needed. Around the same time, the saviours indie didn’t know it had quietly appeared – from Sydney, Howling Bells.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why they grabbed hold of the essence of this music when so many others hadn’t even come close. It’s an indefinable quality- there may once have been a time when I’d have felt able to call it the X factor without blanching – but it involves things like style, panache, a sense of dynamics and, quite simply, a strong feel for songwriting and melody. The absence of these things isn’t necessarily a problem in itself – some of the greatest music ever made has had little tune to speak of – but if you’re just going to make a noise, you’d better have some substance to it and the sheer gormlessness of so much of what was peddled meant it held so few surprises and made so few demands on the listener that it barely seemed to exist.
And so Howling Bells and their dense, layered sound – which supports the songs rather than hanging around on its own – slotted briefly but perfectly into the formidable roster of Simon Raymonde’s Bella Union for their first album. The cover art reflects what lies inside – an illustration of an owl in a tree being pursued, with nefarious intent, from a ladder; it’s such an authentic French-and-American-revolution period pastiche that I was surprised to discover it was actually commissioned for the album and, similarly, Howling Bells grapple so skilfully with their largely ’80s/early ’90s influences that it seems of a piece with them, while still being unmistakably 21st century.
Take opener The Bell Hit, which has an almost stage musical feel, a doleful intro (curiously reminiscent of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days – or, if you prefer, Dorogoi Dlinnoyu, the Russian folk song it’s based on) giving way to a jazzy sashay which could support an unwelcome singalong in the wrong circumstances but, left to its own devices, casts a sunburst into the sorrowfil refrain “Promises are empty in a world of empty bliss.”
There’s palpable contrast in Low Happening – the first of the album’s four singles- where two of the more obvious Howling forebears, Pixies and PJ Harvey, swerve around each other in brilliant discord on the album’s most blatantly abrasive moment. It’s run close, though, by Blessed Night, where Juanita Stein sets out what resembles an abridged version of the non-credo of John Lennon’s God but still grasps for something, or someone, to take her belief to (“Don’t believe in the stories I hear/Don’t believe in the things you fear/Give me strength/Give me time/Give me you, now”) against a simple but inescapable Spanish/Moorish guitar figure from her brother, Joel, and Glenn Moule’s drum pattern spelling out a dire warning.
The nocturnal theme recurs on The Night Is Young, where Juanita darts in a breath from desolate (“When I needed you to stay/Drove your car the other way”) to defiant – with a nifty mixed metaphor for good measure (“Oh,me – don’t you worry about me/Got a pocket full of wisdom up my sleeve) in one of the most expressive and affecting voices of recent times. She doesn’t quite sound Australian but neither does she sound Pom and definitely not faux-American; she sings in a human accent, with no need for subtitles.
Setting Sun, the first toll of the Bells I ever heard, is the most markedly commercial song here but still retains oddness in a rhythm that piledrives even as it’s hushed, a solo from Joel which as uncomplicated as the one on Buzzcocks’ Boredom yet still yields up subtletly, and Juanita capturing the frustration of running out of time while being resigned to it happening: “One more day’s not enough to change the world/But we’ll rise and fall beside the setting sun.” There’s probably a mathematical formula that can unravel why this wasn’t a hit; maybe there’s a generous prize on offer for another formula to make it the hit it’s not too late for it to be.
Four albums in now, that hit continues to elude Howling Bells but the definition of what makes a hit is narrower and more predictable than it’s ever been. The web-driven collapse of the conventional music industry should have cleared the way for uninhibited adventure but conservatism still holds sway. Howling Bells may not be avant-garde but they’re vastly inventive and stand as a reminder of what’s still possible, as well as the solar system of difference in music between being ambitious and having ambition. Howling Bells, like much indie worthy of the name – and like the best of any genre – are ambitious; Gumby indie merely has ambition, for sales, for ever-vaster venues, for heavy rotation – for tedium. Hear Howling Bells – hear the difference (PG).