Howlin’ Rain Continues Inventive Psych Rock Run With ‘The Dharma Wheel’

Howlin’ Rain has always bathed in unapologetically retro rock waters, shooting for that laser-lit, big arena sound as they recall a bygone time when full-length album journeys mattered. Right from the mind-altering cover art Howlin’ Rain clearly announced their intentions with The Dharma Wheel, stretching six songs out to almost an hour via elongated prog-rock excursions, jam band laced flights of fancy and fiddle tinged lullabies. 

On 2018’s The Alligator Bride, Howlin’ Rain’s main man Ethan Miller seemed to be in a sweet spot recording with Eric “King Riff” Bauer via just one or two takes. On The Dharma Wheel, with the same bandmates (Jeff McElroy – bass, backing vocals, Justin Smith – drums/percussion, backing vocals, and Dan Cervantes – guitar, backing vocals), Miller and team have devoted more time to the recording process. Miller co-produced the album with Tim Green, who previously collaborated with the group on Magnificent Fiend (2008) and The Russian Wilds (2012), The Dharma Wheel is certainly more akin to the band’s earlier work. 

Extra help arrives in the form of keyboardist Adam MacDougall and violinist Scarlet Rivera (Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue) whose string work opens up the gorgeous instrumental “Prelude”, an album highlight as the band channels prime era Pink Floyd. “Don’t Let the Tears” falls more into art-rock territory land with a funky bass line, spacey keys, and lyrics that are all over the map in psych-rock fashion.

The core of Dharma Wheel pulls in a jazzy Steely Dan direction as things tighten up while never rushing forward. “Under The Wheels” comes in hot, yearning for arena-sized sing-alongs, while “Rotoscope” is a bubbling ramble that just keeps rolling and rolling down a southern highway at midnight. “Annabelle” slows down the proceedings with Rivera’s violin work standing out. 

The album successfully closes on the dramatic title track which starts out incredibly pretty around the piano, bass runs, and soaring guitars/vocals before throwing things into a whirling blender of freak-out chaos four minutes in. Howlin’ Rain journeys its way to a growling fuzz guitar climax halfway into the song before stopping completely, only to slowly rise to a Broadway-ready finale after sixteen minutes plus. 

The Dharma Wheel was designed to transport the listener away from the pitfalls of the current world via elongated tunes as Howlin’ Rain dramatically plugs in and pushes onward. They don’t always hit their intended mark but no one can accuse Miller and company of dreaming small as the band remains one of rock’s most inventive voyagers. 

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