Howling Bells have built some considerable word of mouth success since I first saw them in Brighton in May. From opening one of The Great Escape’s smaller nights to headlining a sweltering summer’s evening at the prestigious Institute of Contemporary Arts – their first London headline show – in the space of two months is no mean feat.
The Australian alt.noir collective, fronted by the diminuitive and charismatic Juanita Stein, follow Glasgow’s really rather fine The Cinematics onto the stage in baking conditions. Juanita, wielding a guitar that seems at least as big as she is, informs her audience that she thinks this to be the hottest gig she’s ever played. As she comes from Down Under, we must take her at her word – it is indeed very hot.
Cinematic would be an appropriate description for Howling Bells’ textured, ethereal and impressive eponymous debut album, and after an initially insular sound mix, the band’s effortlessly cool, languid sound opens out to soundtrack dreams before us. Excellent lighting turns velvet drapes bright violet behind Juanita, leaving her slight silhouette marooned as though a feature of a silent movie. Later, she is spotlighted – the sense of drama is palpable.
Pity her though – with dark trusses and a guitar, inevitable comparisons with PJ Harvey have repeatedly been made. In truth, the two acts do share something sonic, but Howling Bells’ music might be what PJ Harvey dreams after she’s rocked out one of her ball-of-energy sets. They are definitely not punk. In consequence, the ICA is a good venue for them – a contemplative place rather than a mosh pit generator.
In a flowing set the only surprise is that last single Blessed Night, one of the album’s strongest and most memorable tracks, is sacrificed as the set opener. Perhaps the set ordering is a sign of the band’s confidence in their material, but opening with this track means the sound levels only seem perfect by the end of it.
Happily there’s plenty more that’s memorable. Next single Setting Sun – I still maintain there should be a trance mix of it for the Ibiza denizens, but have yet to hear of one – goes down a storm, and A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts builds to a superbly off-kilter, hip-shaking conclusion.
Despite the heat, the audience whoops for more. But, as with several gigs by a range of acts this summer, the band decline to provide it. Howling Bells prefer to ring time and keep the evening short and sassy.