Mighty Oaks – Howl (2014) – Review

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Sometimes the process of reckoning and reasoning @ RockmusicRaider is unfathomable. No rhyme nor reason seems to be apparent when it comes to record selection for the ever-important review list. The one that decides – sometimes on a whim – who’s gonna get on the blog. 

Then we sometimes enigmatically decide to cover older records first, before the new ones get a chance. Or we go for very old ones to boot. For instance, a Scorpions review just saw the light of day lately for instance. Because stubborn RMR does not listen to pop lore pundits, telling us to only cover same-year records. Or the world will stop and you will drop off. 

Mighty Oaks sailed about the RMR office suite’s mutual conscience for some time already. A bit like the long-forgotten first Russian satellite in all its beepy glory. A source for background chatter of things we should have done, but their tune never quite stuck. Until they appeared on the 2018 Zermatt Unplugged line-up, that is. It looks like they will perform this year in this mountainous abode, and RockmusicRaider himself will be roaming these concert halls as well. 

The band around Ian Hooper formed in 2010 in Berlin. Hooper hailing from the Pacific North West in the US was quickly joined by Italian Claudio Donzelli and Craig Saunders from the UK. As the lore goes, it was three lost souls in a strange country that found themselves. And started to make music as Mighty Oaks. Remarkably the band churned out EPs every few years ever since. But only upgraded their discography with the full-lengths Howl in 2014 and Dreamers in 2017 respectively. 

Once they started with Howl in 2014, their endeavor gained some serious momentum. And this happened – so I understand – kind of despite themselves. Also, the strategy to send EPs to market at relatively short intervals worked out for them. This is of course a double-edged sword because if your material sucks, you just screwed your future delights to the wall.

But – luckily – the 2013 EP Just One Day turned out to be a success. Because when Howl released, the record hit the charts in Switzerland and Germany in the Top Ten and got to rank 39 in Austria. Pretty impressive, if you judge by the sheer volume of new music around at any given time.

Mumford and Sons as an influence was already widely cited, and I’d have to agree to a point. But their brand of Folk Rock, Alt-Rock, and – in a way – Alt-Country, whilst not necessarily new, blows the latter out of the water. No contest there. The record sails near to the straits Passenger was in before and – at times – it bears the hallmark of an early incarnation of Steve Earle in his alt-country robe.

Howl‘s quietly reflective, yet still powerful songs might not be everybody’s cup of whiskey. Yet, Mighty Oaks really pour their hearts and souls into their tune with a surprising depth and a canny thoughtfulness. The inherent variety of styles, elements, and flavors keeps the tracks lively and fresh. And it is this variety that keeps Howl from growing stale and bland. 

Now, whilst Mighty Oak‘s strong point saved a lot of their musical bacon, not all is shining light only in Howl country. With all its goodness, the album has been flirting hard with the filler machine, and it shows. In other words, a severe culling of the tracklist down to the really good stuff would have made a killing. And turned this disk into a real guilty pleasure for an old metalhead like me. But as it stands, the offering is somewhat overladen with some stuff that should not have made it. 

On the other hand, Howl opens up these faucets of folksy goodness like there is no tomorrow. This could well turn out to be a plot for tissue makers, as their more emotional fans might need those by the truckload. But joking apart, the record just goes off with Brother straight on a reflective journey of things in the past. This follows with other jewels like Seven Days, When I Dream, I See, or – again – Just One Day.

After about mid-point Howl loses some of this refreshing energy. And this is when well-tried song structures with sudden changes of tempi kick in and act as life-savers for a number of tracks.

Howl – the title track – at the very end really pulls out the stops again. This one probably contains the essence of the album. If this is possible in a short blurb of hardly three minutes.

So – in the end – the much-rehashed observation that Mighty Oaks pretty much play something we kinda heard before holds some truth. But look at it that way: Folk and Folk Rock are crowded genres. Many a band already tried themselves at this game. And I daresay the sub-genres vary as much as they do in metal. IF you find nerds that really want to classify every friggin’ sound they here into another box.

Yet, Howl is a refreshing piece of work with a pull that always drove me to push the play button all over again. Hooper‘s smoky vocals together with the subdued instrumentals of his two partners in crime offer an irresistible menu of sorts of catchy sounds and flavors. Whilst keeping the compass straight on course, Mighty Oaks were able to inject enough spice into their tune to keep things interesting. And this really provides the juice that this record thrives on. Good one.

Now, how will all of this pan out with their 2017 sophomore full-length Dreamers? We have the scoop, and you will find out why we selected Howl for review first. But this will be words of the future. So, stay tuned.

Ed’s note: Oh, and do check out that Mighty Oaks live review @ the Montreux Jazz 2022!

Record Rating: 7/10 | LabelUniversal | Web: Official Site
Release date: 18 February 2014

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