As the world seemed to get smaller and the walls closed in for more than a year, it feels like elixir for the soul to get an album that’s as spacious and as soaring as The Dharma Wheel. Howlin’ Rain’s latest album is a prog opus in the very best ways, a fantasy novel come to life through solar flare guitar, cosmic organ, barn-rafter fiddle, and Ethan Miller’s now-familiar sandpaper and cognac rasp. The band behind Miller channel decades’ worth of studio sheen and 3AM analog epiphanies. The Dharma Wheel ingests the cocaine sweat of the ‘70s, and the post-hippie optimism of the late ‘60s and molds them into a beast of an album that’s pushing 52 minutes, with more than 16 set aside for the side-long title cut closer. Feeling like Yes if they were weaned on a cocktail of Southern Rock warmups, Bo Hansson outtakes, and Doobie Brothers after-party patter, the record is one of the most ambitious undertakings of the band’s career.
What’s a bit crushing is that it was meant to have been longer, and the true testament to the album’s power is that even after the nearly hour-long runtime ends here, you do want more. Per an interview with It’s Psychedelic Baby, Miller confirms that due to budgeting the album was cut at after the title track, but that was meant to be a mid-point, culminating in a third LP that was planned to end with a nearly 25-minute closer. There’s always time for a Wheel vol. 2, though, so I’m grateful for the goods we’ve got. The album is tumultuous, but celebratory, feeling like the best parts are soaring at 80mph under the clearest West Coast skies. The run from “Don’t Let The Tears” through “Rotoscope’ captures the adrenaline arc the band pounds out live more succinctly than even the highs of The Alligator Bride.
Aside from Miller’s greased whirlpool guitar work, much of the album’s purest moments come from Adam MacDougall (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Circles Around the Sun) on keys. He pushes the album into those prog waters, moving from the mustache funk runs on “Don’t Let The Tears to those crystal hued touches on “Rotoscope” with ease, igniting the finale like forty-four tubes of lighter fluid. The band stops for a moment to catch their breath on the country-dusted “Annabelle,” enlisting Scarlet Rivera (Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue) on violin, and giving the album a meditative centerpiece that feels like a barroom romance painted in velvet strokes. The band has long emblazoned their works with art from Arik Roper’s blacklight brilliance, but this is the first album that feels like it might truly inhabit that world of wonder.
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