I’ve already waxed poetic about my deepening love for ’70s rock but the ’60s remain a relatively uncharted territory for me. I’m of the not-so-humble opinion that The Beatles are overrated (though unquestionably hugely influential) and I find the progressive developments and greater variety found in ’70s rock far more appealing to a decade whose bands who were still much simpler and overtly blues-based. Thus, the promise of ’60s rock with a heavier edge, professed on the promo sheet appealed—on what am I missing out? Can the ’60s interest me? Will I ever stop questioning myself? Answers to some of these questions might be found below.
The “’60s heavy rock” descriptor ascribed by our (almost) perennially flawed editors1 actually turned out entirely accurate and appropriate. It harks back to a pre-Black Sabbath era, though the embellishments layered over this include guitar tones that are significantly fatter and grooves which are closer to stoner metal. Rounding out the influences shown throughout are touches of Americana (“The Day Took My Sunshine Away,” “A Little Bit of Rain”), surf rock (“Strange Night”), and psychedelic rock (“Yellow Lit Road”). At its core, Howlin’ Sun is a highly derivative release as it intentionally references old music but the mix of sounds brought together confers a certain freshness.
The record certainly feels the part of its excellent production. Tor Erik’s voice is pleasingly imperfect and rough; Torgrim Nåmdal’s drums are warm and full in the mix; Pieter ten Napel’s bass guitar rumbles affirmatively, and Magnus Gullachsen executes his groovy leads with a high degree of prominence. The effect of these parts in conjunction is a wholesome and organic package which entirely subverts modern production techniques and its exacting precision. It distinctly evokes dusty, West coast highways and I haven’t even experienced dusty, West coast highways in real life. Of course, the implication here is the West coast of the USA; Howlin’ Sun are indeed from a West coast but that of Norway instead. I wouldn’t have believed it but for the one sheet provided and corroboration from their label and social media, such is the American-ness of this album.
Howlin’ Sun excels in its brevity; only two tracks exceed four minutes. However, “Day-to-Day Blues” bears witness to the fact that any longer doesn’t work here. Its minute-long introduction and 45-second instrumental passage prior to the final verse and chorus blunts the surprising sharpness and technicality of its chorus riff and ensures that the track feels too long. Simplicity and directness are parts of the album’s appeal but such simplicity necessitates a regular change to stave off repetition and boredom. This is largely attained but noticeably is not in the case of “Day-to-Day Blues.” Also highlighted by this point is that Howlin’ Sun are fairly one-note in their achievement here. It’s hard to envisage a way in which their core can be retained while further developing the sound. In this vein, the concluding track called “A Little Bit of Rain” feels tacked-on and lethargic after the remainder’s tempo; it’s a ballad for which the band has to show different qualities and I don’t think it meets the mark. I pose two questions: will they be able to develop from Howlin’ Sun? And will a succeeding record simply repeat what’s already here? I can’t answer the latter but attempts at doing something different on “Day-to-Day Blues” and “A Little Bit of Rain” would suggest not for the former.
I’ve presented these criticisms but please trust that what remains is very enjoyable. Every instrumental element I mentioned above is executed professionally, features fun rhythms or melodies individually and subsequently contributes to a whole which I’ll happily go to for a light-hearted and amusing step into the past. The riffs, in particular, are thick and satisfying, to me invoking Steppenwolf though I don’t proclaim specialist knowledge of ’60s rock. It’s incredibly tough to dislike a band such as Howlin’ Sun and they can be pleased with their efforts here. There’s no denying their derivativeness but it’s intentional and executed to a standard where this isn’t an offensive characteristic. In short? Howlin’ Sun is bitchin’.