As regular readers may have spotted, I’ve been droning on about the second Howlin Rain album since the end of last summer, when an early copy reached me by mildly nefarious means. I’ve regularly postponed blogging on “Magnificent Fiend”, mainly because Rick Rubin signed up the band in the States and the release date has been unusually volatile (it’s now due out in April in the UK, possibly a little earlier in the US). The other reason for the delay, though, is that I’ve played it so much, it’s weirdly become harder to write about. It’s time, though, to attempt to do it justice: though I usually try and avoid crude empirical hype, it’s hard for me to imagine many better rock albums will be released in 1974. Or even in 2008.

As regular readers may have spotted, I’ve been droning on about the second Howlin Rain album since the end of last summer, when an early copy reached me by mildly nefarious means. I’ve regularly postponed blogging on “Magnificent Fiend”, mainly because Rick Rubin signed up the band in the States and the release date has been unusually volatile (it’s now due out in April in the UK, possibly a little earlier in the US). The other reason for the delay, though, is that I’ve played it so much, it’s weirdly become harder to write about. It’s time, though, to attempt to do it justice: though I usually try and avoid crude empirical hype, it’s hard for me to imagine many better rock albums will be released in 1974. Or even in 2008.



Howlin Rain, if you’re a newcomer to this world, are the second band of Ethan Miller, previously best-known as the frontman of the searing psychedelic marvel that is/was Comets On Fire. A couple of years ago, Miller hooked up with bassist Tim Gradek and the great John Moloney from Sunburned Hand Of The Man on drums to make the first Howlin Rain album: a consummate Southern Rock set, cut through with some raging solos from Miller.

For the second Howlin Rain album, Moloney seems to have mainly gone missing. Two members of Drunk Horse are onboard now, and there’s a rollicking keyboardist pushed upfront in the mix, too. The result is that “Magnificent Fiend” has a fuller, more rounded band sound than the debut. It’s more nuanced and rich – though it still rocks intensely.

One of the things I love about Miller – and it’s never been more apparent than here – is the sheer unalloyed joy which he brings to his music. Even in the subtlest moments of “Magnificent Fiend”, he still has this grappling, full-blooded exuberance. Much of the music that he’s inspired by is perilously easy to pastiche, but Miller exudes love and, in those savagely ripped vocal chords and radiant solos, a punkish, beautiful lack of irony.

So “Magnificent Fiend” begins with “Requiem”, a flurry of piano and lonesome jazz trumpet, before crashing into “Dancers At The End Of Time”, driven by one of those slashing, glottal riffs that Miller loves (distinct echoes of stuff on the last Comets album, “Avatar”). It’s fantastically overdriven, but drops to a delicate, funky break before Miller lurches back in, singing himself hoarse. The organ swirls, the sci-fi mythologizing comes thick and fast, the solos ramp up, there are gorgeous twin leads. Not for the last time, I’m reminded of The Allman Brothers – specifically “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More”.

For this is a great jamming band fighting hard – and succeeding – to find great songs at the hearts of their freak-outs. “Calling Lightning Part Two” is an effortlessly sunny sequel to “Calling Lightning With A Scythe” from the last album, at once blissed and propulsive, and with a nostalgic “Dazed And Confused” (Linklater, not Led Zep) lyric where Miller muses, oddly touchingly, “I remember our school, but little of our crimes. . .”

Then there’s “Lord Have Mercy”, which rolls in with some lovely bluesy piano, and gradually builds to a memorable gospel-tinged chorus (And damn, I really wish that Spiritualized album you all keep banging on about could measure up to this. . .). After about three and a half minutes, it slows back down, then starts climbing to an inevitably hysterical climax – which arrives about a minute later, an extraordinarily uplifting gospel freak-out, with massed chorus, and – finally – an insane Miller solo which my colleague John Robinson brilliantly spotted as being a dead ringer for that of Steve Howe on Yes’ “Starship Trooper/Wurm”. I’ve been playing this for six months now, and it still blows my mind every time.

After that, “Nomads” is a meditative come-down; maybe one of the first times in his career that Miller hasn’t sounded like he’s about to lose his voice. The subtle shading is richly satisfying, with ebbing guitars – a little Grateful Dead here, perhaps – circling a Fender Rhodes, and it’s amazing, for those of us who first fell for Miller through the cacophonous psych-punk noise of early Comets, to hear how much range he has now.

“El Rey” elegantly builds up the intensity again, a hairy and tender classic, with added horns, that sounds marinated in the traditions of Muscle Shoals and the ‘70s southern intersection of rock and soul. “Goodbye Ruby” is a snaking, breaks-driven boogie that charges through a sequence of mighty solos (If you’re being seduced by the allusions to the jam stuff on Stephen Malkmus’ “Real Emotional Trash”, this should be your next stop, incidentally). Again, it’s the elevating, passionate spirit of the band which really shines through, an infectious joy at playing rock music.

Towards the end of “Riverboat”, there’s a long and beautiful instrumental passage which reminds me of “Layla”’s coda, rescored for antique synth. Eventually Miller howls back in. “Furious misfortune is upon us,” he warns. But for all the apocalyptic imprecations, I can’t help but feel massively uplifted whenever I listen to this quite tremendous record. After keeping it ourselves for so long, it’s a relief to finally share the love.