In the lead up to the release of The Russian Wilds, Howlin Rain frontman Ethan Miller declared his aim for the album was to blend Jimi Hendrix‘s Electric Ladyland, Steely Dan‘s Gaucho and Bruce Springsteen‘s Darkness On The Edge of Town.
He wasn’t kidding, either. The Russian Wilds riots against everything that represents modern day music. It’s filthy, crunchy, vodka-swilling rock, spiked with drops of jazz and a delivery as ferocious as a chained dog. Solos go on forever, signature changes appear from nowhere; no compromises are made.
It would all end up sounding like a yawn-infused tribute to yesteryear if Miller and co weren’t so proficient at what they do. What they have produced is a thrilling wall of sound. It’s also ambitious in that capturing such a style could’ve come off sounding cheap in the hands of lesser musicians.
Being so inextricably linked to their influencers, it’s nigh on impossible to judge an act like Howlin Rain without referencing bands from 40 years ago – or those bands still cranking it out on the oldies tour. So please, take a deep breath and let the comparisons begin.
The album contains elements of Springsteen and Steely Dan, just as Miller had intended. Miller’s vocals in particular recall the strain and tension that Springsteen always used to amazing effect. There are also flashes of Fagen and Becker towards the end of the LP, though it never gets close to emulating the duo’s impeccable production value.
Elsewhere on the album there are more than modest nods to the early ’70s West Coast sound. Halfway through Cherokee Werewolf there’s an expectation that Don Henley will appear to croon about a Witchy Woman. Similarly, Crosby, Stills and Nash harmonies are sprayed all over Collage. Chuck in a dash of Poco and a doobie or two and you’ve pretty much got soft-rock royalty covered.
As for Miller’s goal to channel Hendrix, most would conclude he is instead aiming more for Eric Clapton in both vocal and lead, especially during a tune like Walking Through Stone. Elements of Led Zeppelin are also emblazed throughout the album; so too are the extended wig-outs of Duane Allman.
There are a couple of tracks that follow a ‘normal’ structure. Dark Side, complete with unexpected poppy chorus, is one such example. The acid-rock inspired Beneath Wild Wings is another and contains a gorgeous middle eight, though its call-back chorus is slight overkill.
Audibly and conceptually, The Russian Wilds is a complete contrast to the iTunes and MP3 market of today. As such, those looking for an eerily familiar – and often brilliant – throwback to the sounds of 1972, please enquire within. Those seeking a band whose aim is to progress a new musical sound should tender their thoughts elsewhere. Far elsewhere.