The emphasis in Howlin Rain is on the howlin. Lead singer Ethan Miller’s throaty delivery is the star of this show. Miller also croons for Comets on Fire, but in that band his vocals share equal billing with the group’s psychedelic instrumental explorations. Howlin Rain’s approach is much more classically classic rock, complete with shades of soul and gospel. It often seems like the band is on stage at a rural Christian revival meeting, with Miller proselytizing at full volume.
It doesn’t take long on Magnificent Fiend for Miller’s voice, a strained howl that makes Greg Dulli’s singing sound crystalline and refined, to take center stage. The album opens with the short instrumental “Requiem,” that rolls on barreling piano chords and blaring trumpets straight into “Dancers at the End of Time.” A minute and a half into that song, after guitar and organ jamming that sounds like it’s straight from Haight-Ashbury circa 1969, Miller’s voice arrives on the scene, and for the rest of the album it dominates the proceedings. Sure, there are other great elements to Howlin Rain’s music. Joel Robinow comes in a close second for band MVP with his spine-tingling organ work. He’s like a reincarnation of some long-forgotten session man who sat in with Dylan or the Allmans. And Mike Jackson’s rhythm guitar helps the band sound as tight as if it actually has been around and playing together for decades. But still, that voice…
And it’s not even what that voice says. Miller’s lyrics are passable if not poetic. Many times, in keeping with the preacher comparison, they take up themes of religion. On “Lord Have Mercy,” Miller begs not only God but his momma for understanding. The song ends with a coda reminiscent of “He’s Got the Whole Word in His Hands.” At other times, Miller’s lyrics grapple with the fading of youth’s fire. On “Calling Lightning Pt. 2,” he wonders of his old schoolmates, “What was the nature of our glorious anger?” And on “El Rey,” he tells a now-complacent friend, “Once you were a magnificent fiend/Eyes like electric eels.”
Howlin Rain is a band both dads and sons can love. The fathers will like how much the band reminds them of Southern rock acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the boys will appreciate Howlin Rain’s neo-psych movement connections. Everyone who likes Howlin Rain’s sound will come away from Magnificent Fiend wanting more. At just eight tracks, it’s a rare full length that doesn’t seem full enough.