'Magnificent Fiend' is the second album from Howlin Rain and the first to be issued under a joint agreement between multi-platinum record producer Rick Rubin's American label and San Francisco-based indie Birdman Records. Here's the back story.
Having recorded a fistful of critically acclaimed -- and increasingly successful -- albums with neo-psychedelic pioneers Comets On Fire, frontman Ethan Miller lit out for fresh musical territories, located somewhere between the Santa Cruz, CA-based band's familiar sonic maelstrom and a more organic, melodic, groove-oriented rock that hearkened back to his halcyon daze growing up on California's "Lost Coast" (Humboldt County), home of lumberjacks, college students, unreconstructed hippies, and off-the-grid botanists.
Enlisting drummer John Moloney from fellow "New Weird America" outfit Sunburned Hand Of The Man and bassist/former high school bandmate Ian Gradek, Miller christened the trio Howlin Rain, whose self-titled debut was released by Birdman in 2006.
Adding guitarist Mike Jackson, another "Lost Coast" native, Howlin Rain embarked on a tour supporting Queens Of The Stone Age, after which Moloney went back to his previous group.
Miller spent the next year writing -- and often rewriting - the songs that comprise Magnificent Fiend. "On our first album," Miller explains, "I tried to make the songs have a simpler pop resonance than the avant-garde rock of Comets On Fire, where the music is much more complex and harder to dig through. So I pared it down to basic chords, but left room for a certain amount of controlled chaos.
"With this new album, my goal was to retain that simple pleasure element while making the actual music far more complicated. I wanted to make something complex sound simple, where the emotional complexity - the relationship between the listener and the music - would still be there."
Creating the richly textured, densely layered sounds found on Magnificent Fiend required additional players: drummer Garett Goddard, guitarist Eli Eckert, and multi-instrumentalist Joel Robinow. (Eckert and Robinow had played together in Drunk Horse; Goddard was a fixture on the San Francisco music scene.)
Decamping to Prairie Sun Recording in the tiny Northern California city of Cotati, the sextet cut the album's basic tracks live in the same converted chicken coop where Tom Waits recorded Bone Machine. Working with engineer Tim Green -- who shares co-production credit with the band, having performed similar duties on Howlin Rain's first album -- the process took all of seven days.
"The difference between Magnificent Fiend and our first record," says Miller, "is primarily architectural: How high the castle got built and the intricacies of the workmanship.
"Because there are more people in the band, there's definitely a Wall of Sound-type thing happening. And part of the new textures came from having so many new players, who are all great technicians -- but they don't let their technical skills separate them from the soul of the music.
"I've always believed your records should be something completely different from your live show. To me, it should be like a big Hollywood movie experience, where you don't want to see all the details, all the little things that make it come together, you just want the result to hit you."
By turns pummeling and pastoral, Magnificent Fiend oscillates between roaring, all-stops-out, Hammond organ-driven tracks and delicate electric piano passages, topped by harmonized, often dissonant guitar lines.
Toss in counter-melodic bass, sometimes quirky breaks, and extended instrumental sequences that are either ascending to the heavens or cascading softly, softly from the skies in sparkling showers of gunpowder and smoke.
All held together by Miller's distinctive, crushed-velvet roar -- redolent of British R&B giants Steve Marriott or Terry Reid - which extends to a sweet, plaintive falsetto; and, as the album's oxymoronic title might imply, the lyrical content.
Mirroring the album's running order, here's Miller's track-by-track take on the subject:
"Requiem" - That's a reformation of the chord progression to the revved-up rock intro to next song. Joel had an acoustic guitar that accidentally wound up with a broken neck; he was so devastated he went back into the studio and overdubbed that sorrowful horn solo.
"Dancers At The End Of Time" - Some of the imagery and the narrative tone are an homage to sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock's books that center on his Jherek Carnelian character. People gleefully sliding toward Armageddon with a bowtie on top of their heads.
"Calling Lightning Pt. 2" - I've always liked the idea of taking the essential quality of a song like 'Calling Lightning With A Scythe' - which we did on our first album -- and making something different out of it. Which itself relates to the thematic concept of becoming distanced from your youth.
"Lord Have Mercy" - A tribute to different kinds of Faustian characters at different stages of their making devilish deals.
"Nomads" - That's a song about trying to write songs, as seen through the perspective of a musician's life on the road.
"El Rey" - A modern pulp story like something Jim Thompson or James M. Cain might've written. How someone could become embroiled in something they'll never shake, like Abu Ghraib, and drift into the criminal world. "
"Goodbye Ruby" - An allegorical tale about the road not taken. Told from point of view of someone who's still in love with the companion in crime who betrayed him.
"Riverboat" - Another pulp crime story about people on edge, trying to hold on while riding the rivers.
Aside from Howlin Rain's willingness to delve deep into the metaphorical sonic spice-rack for certain signature sounds that'd had all but vanished from the contemporary musical landscape -- Vanilla Fudge, Henry Thomas, Wishbone Ash, Eddie Hazel, Procol Harum, Leslie West, Delaney & Bonnie, Atomic Rooster, Super Wolf, and Jim Ford, for openers -- Magnificent Fiend is a study in contrasts that reflects the duality in humanity, in the form of the people who made the record, who inspired the record, and the rest of us.
Bio by Don Waller