It would be disingenuous to claim that Radio Wars, the sophomore LP by Australian rock troupe Howling Bells is a failure, but I’ll have to try it anyway. I’ll partially blame myself for this negative reaction: I raised my expectations far too high for this quartet from down under.

Thirty seconds into leadoff track, “Treasure Hunt”, and I’ve set myself up. The thought is that this could be the best “random musical find” of recent memory. Reminiscent of Björk and Beth Gibbons of Portishead, Juanita Stein’s vocals are at once both claustrophobic and free-spirited, unnerving yet focused. “Marching backward, looking forward / marching forward, looking backward”, Stein’s lament on the opening tune, exemplifies the feeling that came over me, as I gradually made my way through the disc.

Radio Wars is a lot like a ´90s American comedy movie, in that it crams the strongest material into the first half, before falling backwards into tiresome, sentimental mediocrity (here’s looking at you Mr. Sandler). Where “It Ain’t You” has some perfectly delivered punchlines, “Ms. Bell’s Song” surrenders the impossibly gorgeous starlet into the arms of the run-of-the-mill schmuck.

But the effort should not go unacknowledged simply because of a few missteps. While Stein’s vocals are strong, it´s the drumming of Glenn Moule that really puts a face on the record. Moule’s tribal percussion is accented with slick production to create a very ominous sound; lead single, “Cities Burning Down” sounds like it could be a B-side from Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief. This isn´t so surprising, as RW was produced by Dan Grech-Marguerat who has spent time engineering alongside long-time ´Head producer Nigel Godrich. Furthermore, Moule is asked to carry the second half of the disc, as Stein’s vocals become softer, ending up like an underachieving Emily Haines.

Cuts like “Let’s Be Kids” and “Golden Web” showcase the band´s potential; when they bring their skills together, they can craft some catchy prospective singles. As an album closer, it would prove challenging to find a more appropriate song than “How Long”, which eerily closes the curtains on this impressive, although at times cloudy, release. In the end, it´s a promising effort, leaving a trace in the air of better things to come.

Howling Bells
43 minutes
Rating: 3/5

John Nixon´s passion for music, literature and film are only surpassed by his self-indulgent appreciation for his own writing.