Rowland S. Howard, guitarist for The Birthday Party and These Immortal Souls has succumbed to liver cancer at the age of 50. Howard’s work with singer Nick Cave in The Birthday Party was Australia’s most vivid entry into the arty noise assault sweepstakes set off by punk rock. His guitar style was like a bludgeon of textures and wild noise, bolted beneath the chaos to sure and taut rhythms.
A perfect orbital complement to the doomy yelps of Cave, Howard’s beautifully unstable, feedback-laden playing transformed what was a pop-punk contemporary of The Saints and Radio Birdman named The Boys Next Door into a world-class experimental / uncategorizable outfit called the Birthday Party.
I first heard BP’s “Release The Bats” at the age of 14 in 1981 on a mix cassette that also gave me my first exposure to Killing Joke and Gang of Four. While all three groups effectively destroyed what guitars had been before, leaving a giant crater in my own aesthetic, it was Howard’s musical brinksmansip that was the most extreme of the three. It would take years for his approach to re-emerge in the form of US bands adopting the mantle such as Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, Cows, God Bullies and The Jesus Lizard.