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Ben Howard - "Winter shall howl at the walls"
on 25 November 2012
Having been a late convert to Ben Howard's "Every Kingdom" its been a fascinating task tracing his development. On that album it is the uplifting songs that drag you into his musical tent; the pounding "The Wolves" and the soundtrack for any summer "Old Pines", On this latest EP "The Burgh Island" it is black seas and darker clouds on the cover that replace the bright sunlight breaking through the blue water of "Every Kingdom". It signals an altogether bleaker and more menacing focus in the songs of Ben Howard and also the tell tale signs that he is developing into a much more powerful and considered songwriter. True on "Every Kingdom" there were songs such as "Black flies" that showed his ability to inject a wintery chill but on "The Burgh Island" the mood is overwhelmingly brooding and slightly heavy. Who knows what demons this small island just off the coast of Devon hold for Howard but this EP release is expertly timed to anticipate the shifts of the changing seasons. Howard recognised this in a recent interview when he stated "I think I like the autumn, because it's kind of ominous. Winter's just behind it, but everything's sleepier and it's quite cool, but you know everything's going to get dark real soon,".
Throughout the expert finger-picking guitar style of Howard is the perfect rolling backdrop to these hymns of melancholy. Opener "Esmeralda" starts with building chords and a plaintive mood that references "black seas", the "monster that killed the melody of love" and a powerful verse where Howard observes "Blinded, now I see the death, moves amongst us /And with such ease surround us /These silent beasts so hard to bare". Its stirring stuff and builds to a large impressive crescendo. If anything the granite like "Oats in the Water" takes an even darker turn and shows growing maturity with any residual surfing jibes about him being the "British Jack Johnson" rendered completely redundant as it all ends in an angry swirl of electric guitar. It is the third track however "To be alone" that sees Howard effectively employing new soundscapes to punctuate his work. It starts like a Thom Yoke song with ghostly echoing guitar until a more conventional song emerges where the distinctive vocal is probably the best on the whole EP. Finally things do ease somewhat for the near seven minute title track which has a more "chill out" set of atmospherics and is a beautifully slow lament that gently unfolds overs over an echo laden Fender until around the five minute mark when the gorgeous voice of Norwegian newcomer Monica Heldal breaks through to bring the song to a haunting conclusion. This is very fine EP by Howard and probably sets the direction of travel for the sophomore album that he is currently working on. Its good to see that he is not content to rest on his laurels and all of this augers well for the future.