In July 1970 a little Bay Area band released an album called Cosmo’s Factory. The album opened with seven-minute track which, for all of a minute forty, played to their familiar sound. The remaining five-plus minutes set off a breakdown that is unforgettable.
Known to always go their own way, perhaps ramble tamble a bit themselves, fellow Bay Area melodic sculptors Howlin Rain have tapped into a rhythm to prove the heartbeat of beautiful Americana psychedelic folk wanderer is still beating strong.
Those who have followed Howlin Rain for the last fifteen-plus years know the bar has been set pretty high when it comes to songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Ethan Miller, et al. Each album better than the previous. Yet, each living and breathing in its own space. Now, as 2021 begins winding down, Miller, Jeff McElroy (bass/backing vocals), Justin Smith (drums/percussion/backing vocals) and Dan Cervantes (guitar/backing vocals) have cultivated a stage-to-groove, six-track, 52-minute escape from the world titled The Dharma Wheel.
The best approach to The Dharma Wheel is to be as mindfully present as possible. From there you can glean the insane intricacies and brilliance that comes pouring forth from each track. To not would be as if you were staring at your phone, trying to pick a nearby taco shop for lunch as you walk through an art exhibit of some of the most talented artists of today.
As if some vagabond version of Swampers, trolling the California coast, Howlin Rain has captured a sense of Americana that is both nostalgic and fresh that carries enough slick guitar but drifts on psychedelic breakdowns without missing an opportunity, that captures your attention and enlightens you all at once. Broad on paper, yet seamless in ear, The Dharma Wheel is, definitively Howlin Rain, while mixing in some exciting new adventures. “Under the Wheels” dips a toe in a pool of Yes. “Rotoscope” rides cleanly on rolling snare like a window-down, elbow on the frame trip down the road in late summer. And the final, title track, well…damn; just, damn. “Dharma Wheel,” split into two parts, each coming in at around eight minutes, swings in at 16:21 as it launches the record into the stratosphere. The first eight-minute-ish half bends minds in its psychedelic drifts and rich grooves. It is dynamic, bold, and layered to the teeth on expansive musicianship. The second unilaterally builds on ballad before exploding into everything we’ve all come to love from Howlin Rain. At the outset, the keys climb and the guitar settles in reverb, I’m left in awe. As Miller put it “at its core, The Dharma Wheel is the triumph of a working band, a transmission from a never-paused before arriving for our strange, bruised, spectacular now.” Mr. Miller, this is a triumph indeed.
Honest to home and the vivid layers so many have come to love over the years, Howlin Rain does not disappoint in the latest release. The Dharma Wheel, if even for 52 minutes, makes the world suck a lot less. The Dharma Wheel is an escape. It is a six-hole portal to take a deep breath and find release from the day-to-day. The Dharma Wheel is, unequivocally, a modern masterpiece.