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Magnificent Trouble Music

Ethan Miller is a charming fiend.

By Adrian Mack 24 Apr 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Adrian Mack writes regularly about music for The Tyee.

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Howlin' Rain laughs at the 21st century apocalypse.

Food shortages, peak oil, climate change, incomprehensible wars and rising chaos in the New World...it really seems as though trouble arrived in earnest with the 21st century.

When Ethan Miller was fronting the incredible, neo-psychedelic band Comets on Fire, I felt he was scoring the black acid comedown of all time, in which a three-and-a-half-decade trip came to its psychotic end. The juju on its 2004 album Blue Cathedral couldn't be heavier.

And Miller's new band, Howlin' Rain, advances the narrative that he began with Comets on Fire. If the first act pointed at the transition from the summer of love to the permanent bummer that replaced it, then Howlin' Rain echoes both the descent into heavy blues rock that gripped white musicians in the years that followed, and their concurrent retreat into early American history and woolly-headed environmentalism -- all that sedative, "back to the garden"-type stuff.

Howlin' Rain's new album, Magnificent Fiend, offers meaty drums, gospel-tinged choruses galore, and the always-sensible use of a Hammond organ to make the point. But Miller's lyrics offer little relief. In the single "Dancers at the End of Time" (title taken from Michael Moorcock's epically end-timey sci-fi of the same name), Miller delivers provocative lines: "Tones of history ring here like a gong, but the pitch is bent and queer," while the chorus promises deliverance, by Jesus, "into the hollow lands." But it's hardly comforting in this context.

Doom hangs over the rest of the album like an awning about to collapse. References to sand abound, as if Miller envisions a desert where America used to be. It's like a biker rock album from '73, fronted by a Steve Marriott sound-alike suffering from apocalyptic visions and a mysterious wasting disease. The fact that the name "Ethan Miller" sounds like it dropped right out of a Steinbeck novel doesn't hurt.

There's nothing fiendish about it, unless one acknowledges the ultimate fiend no doubt slouching towards Bethlehem in the back of Miller's fevered brain, but Howlin' Rain's whole melodramatic gestalt is most definitely magnificent.

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