The instrumental “Prelude” that unlocks this six-song flow of an album does so with a revolving and evolving, acid tab of baroque; a theme seeming born of an alchemy of Aldous Huxley and Antonio Vivaldi. It’s a vivid precursor to nearly an hour’s worth of extended tracks zig-zagging along the cosmic highway. As well, compared to Howlin’s last brilliant, robust studio set, The Alligator Bride, or its subsequent two ferocious live albums, the Bay-Area group’s creative captain, Ethan Miller, opts here for more drift than drive. The fiery six-string dialogue is still there; Miller and Dan Cervantes continue to converse in hi-watt exclamations, but also synch pleasingly in composed harmony or lay low, giving space for the ensemble’s engine to hum along as the road unfolds, as on “Under the Wheels.” Or the snarling guitars and beat poetry can be rolled up into a funkified disco ball of a band, as on “Don’t Let the Tears,” akin to guest keyboardist Adam MacDougall’s more recent trips with Circles Around the Sun and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
It all comes together beautifully on “Rotoscope,” as MacDougall’s electric raindrops on the windshield give way to the torrential flashes of Miller and Cervantes as we watch our lives go by. Miller introduces the pensive folk reflections of “Annabelle” with the wistful violin of Scarlet Rivera (Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue), lying in the meadow awhile on a sunny afternoon. Then, with a 16-minute, multi-movement title track as a culminating statement, “The Dharma Wheel” melds it all together- the marshal blitzkrieg of guitars; the layered and multicolored keyboards; the assertive, increasingly dramatic vocal ascents- coalescing atop Jeff McElroy’s metronomic bassline and drummer Justin Smith’s grooving counterpart.
The finale quiets midway through, rather disarmingly, then, as wheels do, returns for one more resolving turn. One more climb to the cosmos. Try not to crash.