Fans of Comets on Fire, longtime provocateurs of the volcanic garage freak-out, were in for a quite a shock when picking up the band's latest disc, Avatar. Long gone were the fist-pumping acid-blues anthems, and in their stead, a collection of balmy, roots-rock ruminations that had many reviewers drawing parallels with the most divisive of musical lightning rods, the Grateful Dead.
For those of you looking for the man to commend (or condemn), I give you Mr. Ethan Miller, Comets' former singer/guitarist, who's now stretching his classic-rock fetishization to the nth degree with his new trio, Howlin' Rain. Joined by a steamroller of a rhythm section, bassist Ian Gradek and Sunburned Hand of the Man's John Moloney, Miller rasps like a smiling bulldog over his new batch of reverentially homespun material.
Howlin' Rain's eponymous debut can go from hot to cold like a broken faucet, with a handful of tracks coming off like misfires from the Avatar sessions mangled by the Black Crowes. When it's hot, it's scalding.
In deviations from spirited '70s rock grooves, Howlin' Rain truly find their voice. The blistering dive bomb of a solo that flares up midway through "Calling Lightning with a Scythe" sounds eerily like a Harley-Davidson trying to mate with a Marshall half stack. Far subtler are the fire-and-brimstone assertions in Miller's lyrics, only obvious after a few immersive listens. When the singer growls, "You walk the desert half-wolf, half-god/Kicking at the skulls of husbands and daughters," it's clear this is Ethan Miller, not Steve Miller. Ultimately, though, Howlin' Rain succeed where many other retro-rockers fail by refusing to let their own identities be overshadowed by the milestones their idols left behind.