Is rock and roll dead? Not according to The Howling Tongues.
When I first heard “Vivian,” the Atlanta quintet’s ear-blistering anthemic jam, I’d just moved to Atlanta. I grew up in a town so small it barely warrants mentioning. It’s a bump in the road in the southeastern corner of Georgia where The Beatles’ records had been publicly burned in the ‘60s and rock ’n roll was still a four letter word half a century later.
Everything was foreign — exhilarating, thrilling, and at times like a scene from an action movie (hello, I-85 explosion, I’m looking at you!).
That is, until I heard “Vivian.”
My first thought was, “How could I have possibly missed this?”
It was a tour de force of scathing guitar riffs, a rumbling bass line weaving around a shameless groove, and screaming keys. Then there were the raspy, soulful vocals launching a rocket to the moon and bewailing the space vampire Vivian’s unquenchable thirst while boldly refusing to be a part of her new world order. To be honest, I imagined it was some forgotten lovechild of Bowie and The Who, left to the mercies of Jack White’s neurotic irreverence and the Stooges’ primal ferocity, amalgamating in what the band describes as, “a boogie-inducing rock ’n roll hurricane.”
A Frankensteined garage-rock creation of the most bombastic bands of the 70s heyday, The Howling Tongues’ 2016 release Boo Hiss was the result of the Atlanta natives taking full creative control.
Their self-titled LP, released three years prior, gave fans a taste of their reckless, no-holds-barred dedication to the resurrection of rock ’n roll, but it wasn’t until lead singer Davey Rockett, guitarist Nick Magliochetti, bassist Brandon Witcher, drummer Tylor James, and the “mad scientist” organist and pianist Thomas Wainwright hunkered down in their studio to write and demo a grand total of thirty songs that the raucous energy of their live performances were captured on tape.
For the first time in a long time, no producer was guiding the band’s sound or making decisions for them.
In some ways, it was reminiscent of the bands’ conception during a week-long ice storm in 2011, when the childhood friends and lifelong musicians were trapped in the basement together with only a pile of rock records at their disposal. Left to their imaginations, the recording process was electric, at times bordering on ingenious insanity reminiscent of John Lennon during the Abbey Road days (though, as far as I know, none of The Howling Tongues asked to be hung upside down from the ceiling and swung around a microphone to create a modulating vocal effect).
The live room became a laboratory where procedure went up in smoke: they experimented with tones, tunings, and sounds, ran vocals through a guitar amp and pedals, and worked and reworked parts until they and engineer T.J. Elias (Blackberry Smoke, Walk the Moon, Third Day) reached what I’ve found so often eludes musicians: satisfaction.
The result? A gritty, power-packed nine-song offering to the gods of rock ’n roll.
From the first overdriven rift of “Raw Power in a Red Dress,” the “brazen bastard stepchild of The Stooges’ “Raw Power” and The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress),” to the final note of “S.O.S.,” a compulsory hip-shaker that I envisioned losing my voice screaming along to in any stadium in the world. From top to bottom, Boo Hiss offered children of the seventies a mixed drink of nostalgia and excitement while exposing the lurid glamour of rock and roll to a new generation of music lovers.
In the almost two years following the release, this band of brothers has done anything but slow down. Remember that cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Around the Bend” in the Wrangler commercial, the one that left you asking an empty room, “who is that?” Ladies and gentlemen, The Howling Tongues.
Following a national tour in early 2017 with Austin, Texas’s enigmatic indie royalty Leopold and His Fiction, the Tongues made a triumphant return to New York’s storied rock club, Arlene’s Grocery, leaving crowds dazed and confused by their signature one-two-punch of a rock show at Fort Collins, Colorado’s Aggie Theatre. In April 2018, years of late nights, long drives, and dogged dedication to the music paid off when they were tapped to play their biggest show to date: opening for 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee Bon Jovi at Atlanta’s Philips Arena in front of 21,000 people.
But if you ask them — or anyone in the crowd at one of their hometown shows what the most exciting aspect of the group is, the answer might surprise you. It’s not the commercial placements, the arena shows and festivals in front of thousands of fans, or their highly anticipated 2018 release, set for late summer. It’s the heart behind the music, the brotherhood and camaraderie on and off stage, and the realization that yes, it’s still possible for five people to come together with one goal: to make the best rock record in the world.