Howlin’ Rain – The Russian Wilds Review

Listening to The Russian Wilds by Howlin’ Rain in its entirety for the first time is akin to doing a drug that instantly pulls you into an idealized version of 70s rock. Complete with all the delicate blues nuances, powerful singing, guitar solos, vocal harmonies, stylish organ, instrumental mastery and Rolling Stones nods you’d expect (and with a runtime to boot!). It’s a drug in incredibly short supply (and, sadly, low demand) these days, and most of the kids looking to score don’t even really know what they’re looking for. The Russian Wilds, my friends, is pure Cambodian. And I’m totally hooked.

Wow, that metaphor actually went way better then I thought it would.

One of the first things you’ll notice about The Russian Wilds is the song lengths; five of the 11 songs are over six minutes in length. Howlin’ Rain have borrowed more than just the simple ‘sound’ of 70s rock, they’ve studied its structure. These songs may be long, but they don’t drag. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Every song has been painstakingly crafted and intricately assembled down to the tiniest detail; every lick, harmony and drum flare is there for a reason, and it really does help every song reach its full potential. It’s rare I say this, but this is a rock album that makes great use of its entire runtime and really couldn’t afford to lose much. Now, I admit, this is a fact that doesn’t really feel apparent in the first song on the album, “Self Made Man.” The song, while being incredibly catchy and intensely listenable, feels like a seven minute long song, and I’m not sure about its placement as the album opener. Though I suppose its cool melodies and repeated croons of, “who will love your self-made man,” do serve as a charming introduction to vocal stylings of the album. The song, in that sense, serves better as a foreword to the rest of the record. The second song on the album, “Phantom in the Valley,” is the song that drives home the band’s inspired and tight musicianship. About four minutes into the infectious rock anthem, I noticed the track had three minutes left. I thought this was odd, as the song by that point had apparently achieved everything it set out to do, then came the drop. The song launches into a salsa-inspired build, complete with excellent horn-work and fantastic, heavy percussion. Before this the song was infectious, but here it becomes downright possessive.

And really, if there were a single word I’d use to describe the record, that would be it. Each song calls out for you to sing along, to air guitar, to invest yourself in it. It’s a possession you absolutely enjoy. It’s something so many bands strive for, but Howlin’ Rain make it seem effortless on Russian Wilds. I know better than to assert that it is, but at the same time the flow and overall sense of fun stitched into every song on the album makes it seem that way. It all feels very animated and makes for an instantly fulfilling listen.

One of (if not the) the best things Howlin’ Rain have going for them is the sheer power of their music and ferocity with which they perform. This power is what turns what should be Russian Wilds‘s weakest song – the long, slow, done-before ballad “Can’t Satisfy Me Now” – into one of its strongest. It’s the bands commitment to the song (and their sound in general), and the earnestness one imagines in their performance that makes it both endearing and insanely catchy. Miller’s voice hits all the right notes with a force that brings the song home and cements it as an album highlight. This isn’t to give the wrong impression, though. Ethan Miller’s vocal style is one which, if featured on a lesser record, would absolutely carry it, but this is not the case on Russian Wilds, and “Can’t Satisfy Me Now” in particular. Instead, every member of the band gives their all, throwing themselves at the song in a way that demonstrates they’re all on top form.

Really, I could just continue through a play-by-play of every song on the album (and I will! Retroactive review writing!). They all have something going for them. The songs that intially rubbed me the wrong way eventually blossomed into something fantastic, and even the songs I found weakest on the record stand out and leave a distinct impression. The truth is, with Russian Wilds, Howlin’ Rain really did just bring their all in every song. From the wistful flow and rolling escalation of “Strange Thunder” to the infinitely enjoyable titular lyric of “Dark Side” to the two distinct halves of the the split-song finale to the wonderful backing vocals and bouncing bass line on “Cherokee Werewolf” to –

You know what? Screw it. Five stars.

Rating: ★★★★★