It’s a Monday evening and the gloomy weather has cast a grey shadow over Hackney. Back in 2006, the opportunity to see Howling Bells, who had the songs to perfectly soundtrack such a miserable day and make it one to relish. Unfortunately, this is eight years later and the fortunes for the London-based Aussie quartet have steadily diminished. Most bands would be knocked out cold by some of the negative reviews their recent material has garnered. However, as they leap onto the stage at the rather confusingly named Oslo, they seem up for a fight and ready to prove people wrong.
They launch straight into Paris without hesitation, which turns out to be a bit of a red herring, in that it feels like more of a mood-setter than an all-guns-blazing opener. The rest of the new material, taken from upcoming fourth album Heartstrings, is a bit more convincing. Even though they’re playing to an audience hearing these new songs for the first time, Howling Bells haven’t sounded this urgent and determined for a long time. Reverie in particularly bouncing along wonderfully. At times, as proven by first single Slowburn, they even recapture the cinematic feel of their early work such as Setting Sun, which, inevitably, gets an overwhelmingly positive reaction.
It’s one of several tracks from their debut LP to provoke a strong reaction from the crowd, with Juanita Stein’s husky and seductive vocals sounding even better as time has passed. She pulls no punches as she breathes new life into A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts and Wishing Stone. The low lighting in the venue ensures that these tracks retain the cloudy atmosphere that works so well on record. It’s all too easy for them to charm their congregation on Velvet Girl, whilst Low Happening remains their strongest song, booming out of the speakers with all the intensity of a band that seem re-energised. Undoubtedly, these are the highlights of what is a relatively short set with little in the way of banter and a notable absence of tunes made later than their career highlight to date.
Ultimately, what followed that self-titled album didn’t quite work because they sounded as if they were ditching the darkness that had served them so well. Instead they aimed big, seemingly not because they wanted to but because they felt like they had to. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that only a single track each from both Radio Wars and The Loudest Engine are given an airing, but even these have mixed results. Cities Burning Down impresses but The Wilderness, rather aptly, is a little lost.
Broken Bones, one of their best attempts at bluesy rock and containing some of their darkest moments lyrically (hearing Stein sing “Broken bones may hurt/But a broken heart will never mend” is particularly chilling), ends things on a bleak high. It’s an inconsistent 45 minutes but there’s enough promise in the new material to suggest that there is a reason to be upbeat in the Howling Bells camp, as well as a reminder of what they’re best at.