By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — One of the leading lights of the Bay Area’s psychedelic revival for nearly two decades ever since first rising to notoriety as a founding member of unhinged psych-punk group Comets on Fire in 1999, guitarist Ethan Miller has had an important hand in a number of significant bands to emerge from the region’s fruitful scene.
For the better part of the 2000s, Comets on Fire stood at the forefront of San Francisco’s modern resurrection of mind-altering musical mayhem. Founded by childhood friends Miller (guitar and vocals) and Ben Flashman (bass) in Santa Cruz just before the turn of the millennium, the group forged a chaotic sound matching Miller’s corrosive guitar destruction with his wildly effect-drenched vocals that were pushed into sonic chaos by Echoplex manipulator Noel Von Harmonson.
After the addition of powerhouse drummer Utrillo Kushner and Six Organs of Admittance mastermind Ben Chasny on second guitar, Comets on Fire earned a deserved reputation as one of SF’s most ferociously transcendent live acts. Two stellar albums for Sub Pop Records (Blue Cathedral in 2004, followed by what would be the band’s last studio effort to date, Avatar, in 2006) further established the quintet as major players on the global psych scene.
It was during Comets’ rise mid-decade that Miller decided he wanted a new outlet that let him explore a more melodic sound that drew on the laid-back style of SF psychedelia that inspired him while growing up on the Lost Coast. Forming the first line-up of Howlin Rain with longtime friend Ian Gradek and Sunburned Hand of the Man drummer John Moloney, Miller would delve into the kind of extended freeform improvisation favored by such Bay Area standbys as the Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service mixed with the earthy, southern-tinged guitar choogle of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Allman Brothers.
Built around Miller’s songs and raspy, soulful vocal delivery and still corrosive guitar tone, Howlin Rain quickly found an audience that only grew in scope and reach with the release of the band’s eponymous 2006 debut and sophomore album Magnificent Fiend two years later that was released on noted producer Rick Rubin’s label American Records. With Comets on Fire going on an extended hiatus from activity, Howlin Rain would become the guitarist’s main outlet.
Supported by an evolving group of players that included members of local left-field hard rockers Drunk Horse Eli Eckert and Joel Robinow on the latter album, Miller worked closely with Rubin on the follow-up effort, sifting through dozens of songs before coming up with the tracks that made up the ambitious opus Russian Wilds that finally came out in 2012. Tracked with a powerhouse quintet the guitarist and Robinow put together that featured former Drunk Horse and Saviours bassist Cyrus Comisky, talented Earthless guitarist Isaiah Mitchell and drummer Raj Ojha (who would later form Once and Future Band with Robinow), Russian Wilds featured some inspired playing and songs, but the drawn-out recording process had already taken its toll.
Robinow would depart, leaving the band as a four-piece as it toured the globe to support an album that due to a label shake-up wasn’t getting much support from American Records. While the concert document of that version of the band Live Rain showed off the pyrotechnics of a fiery ensemble that highlighted some ferocious interplay between Miller and Mitchell, after the tour the group would dissolve, essentially leaving the bandleader without a band.
Miller occupied some time with a brief reunion of Comets on Fire in late 2013 that was spurred by members of the band collaborating with guitarist Chasney on an album and tour, but he eventually turned his focus back to Howlin Rain, putting together songs that would make up the 2015 effort Mansion Songs, the first of a proposed trilogy of albums from the band. That low-key effort featured support from Heron Oblivion, a new band Miller had formed with relocated Philadelphia musician Meg Baird (who has her own solo career in addition to playing with Philly psych/folk band Espers), longtime collaborator Harmonson and Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound guitarist Charlie Saufley, but at the same time, the guitarist was also putting together a new live line-up of Howlin Rain with LA-based musicians Jeff McElroy and Dan Cervantes.
If anything, Miller has ramped up his activity in the several years since Mansion Songs came out, recording and touring with both Heron Oblivion (who put out their acclaimed debut for Sub Pop in 2016) and his blistering psych-punk power trio Feral Ohms, and releasing his first solo ambient/noise guitar recordings under the moniker the Odyssey Cult as well as two volumes of surrealist poetry through his imprint Silver Current Recordings. In the summer of 2018, Miller hit the road with Howlin Rain for the first time since the release of Mansion Songs with a new drummer (Justin Smith) and the electrifying collection of songs The Alligator Bride that returns the band to the melodic, blues-drenched psychedelic roar of its earlier recordings.
The band has put in steady road work since the album 2018 release, touring both coasts extensively and putting in a blistering set at last year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. This past summer, the band announced plans to release the first in a series of live recordings made with the current line-up over the past year. Under the Wheels: Live from the Coasts Vol. 1 showcases some of the blistering stage performances Howlin Rain captured over the past year, offering extended renditions of new tracks and early fan favorites. The group returns to the Bay Area to headline this Friday night show at the Chapel, joined by GospelbeacH (the latest project of Beechwood Sparks principle Brent Rademaker) and LA-based jam band Pacific Range with DJ music spun by the Hip Death Goddess & the Head and visuals from the Mad Alchemy Liquid Light Show.
Friday, Sept. 6, 8:30 p.m. $18-$20