The Sovereign Self boasts one of the most vivid and arresting disc openings you’re likely to hear: the headily rapturous sound of the blindingly incandescent, pure soprano of Lavinia Blackwell soaring majestically aloft, ushering in a busy unsnared drum tattoo and spaghetti-western twang guitar with an onwardly-pulsing backdrop that subsequently builds into a deafening wall of electric guitars, organ washes and reverb psych effects. Think early Velvet Underground meets Vanilla Fudge and epic madrigal in the valley of the shadow of Siouxsie & The Banshees… All of which provides a terrific setting for lyrics to die for (they’re very draining to sing too… and yet this songbird doesn’t quite sing itself hoarse!). Lines like “I saw a ship sail on the north Yorkshire moors and mistook it for a vision”, (a “Jonathan Strange” moment if ever there was), conjure their giddy, queasy motion and somehow also voice the “vast and terrible question” (more than half-remarkable, I suspect) that lies ’Tween The Womb And The Tomb.
The band’s chief songwriter Alex Neilson tells us that, aside from its title’s derivation from a Dennis Potter reference, a key inspiration for album number five, The Sovereign Self, was his personal and wholesale immersion in the language of Greek tragedy following a relationship breakdown, and there’s certainly much sense of the allegorical and worldly amongst the more orthodox episodes expressing romantic trials and tribulations (Miserichord’s “Now whenever I get depressed I shelter at her consoling breast”), albeit in the mode of classical tragedy viewed through a parallel-universe or distorting lens. For the special, distorted musical landscape that Trembling Bells inhabit is intense, highly charged and dramatic, while invariably loud, much driven and sometimes overblown, often seeming impenetrable in its gloriously resplendent cloudy detail, where opacity of texture muddies the waters and sometimes obscures the enunciation of the lyrics to a slightly frustrating degree (that’s my only recurring carp in a sound-world where the attention span of the goldfish is of no consequence). But these lyric creations deserve to be heard and appreciated.
Aural and verbal extravagances are legion. Quirky, almost deliberately strange-but-oddly-normal juxtapositions of cultural references from all ages both inform and intrude on the folk-paraphrases and carefully cunning puns of O Where Is Saint George?, all of which would no doubt have pleased the foxy Aunt Lucy Broadwood! (O where in Glasgow is she lurking, indeed?). Perhaps through the influence of the band’s touring with the Incredible String Band’s Mike Heron, a continuing, and increased, ISB influence is felt on this album, though arguably more in the vocal work than any specific eclectic-exotica – here notably on the opening chorale of O, Where Is Saint George?, and on Alex’s vocal lead on the distinctly morose reaper’s-lullaby-cum-shuffle of The Singing Blood, a bit like Robin Williamson singing one of Fotheringay’s Americana-oriented numbers, the rather deep sadness of “the be-all and end-all of nothing at all” conveyed through its becalmed piano-led rambling that contrasts with the animated, tricky drum brushings that follow it along. The triumphant Killing Time In London Fields is possessed by the demon of hard-edged B52s-space-rock crash-landed in Hackney’s salley-gardens, moderated by the cautionary mantra of the final stanza. Sweet Death Polka is, considering its inner anguish, altogether more tenderly voiced and leisurely-tempoed, a pavane for our fickle times amidst Keatsian sensual wallowing that’s at once sickly-artificial and disturbingly sentient. Bells Of Burford brings on sinister Arthur Brown and King Crimson riffs to conjure archaic Cotswold ritual, with manic tempo shift episodes and grinding organ processionals that lead down into the depths of chaos. (Perched Like A Drunk On A) Miserichord starts out on an Albion Country/Steeleye-type Just As The Tide tinkling folk-rock introit before launching into its hallucinogenic refrains and pot-pourri of imagery for a heraldic fol-de-rol from the mountains of the moon, gleefully hurling knowing obscenities from the mouths of grinning tartan gargoyles and embracing the mischievous cum-on of the harlot on the streets of anywhere. Then for a finale, we’re swept headlong through a time-portal, a scary wind-tunnel, down along the A61 of I Is Someone Else, where the black sheep dance blackface: is this the Highway Star of Route 66 (the devil’s road)? A foreboding heavy-duty Shades Of Deep Purple demeanour introduces a mighty twin-guitar interlude (probably talkin’ MWSTW-era Bowie here) which is capped by a searing wah-wah prog-psych solo (does this represent the sublimation of the ego, or another trip entirely?).
Trembling Bells remain unique – all the catch-’em inspirations notwithstanding, there still really is no other band like them. Even the occasional moments of maddening ultra-diffuseness have their positive side, for after all, there’s the paradox of “nothing lies behind everything” to contend with. Trembling Bells’ vivid cacophony rules benignly, combining volume, substance and intoxicating, druggy lyrical beauty in a darkly satisfying, curiously celebratory and often epic aural challenge. Don’t expect an easy ride, and don’t for a moment think of compromise – instead give this literally-stunning music your full attention, and stick it on repeat.
Review by: David Kidman
The Sovereign Self is out now via Tin Angel.
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30 June- London- Cafe Oto album launch (with Alasdair Roberts/ Family Elan/ Death Shanties)
1st July- London- Cafe Oto album launch (with Mike Heron/ Dan Haywood/ Martin Carthy/ Crying Lion)
2nd July- Wymondham Music Festival (with Mike Heron)
3rd July- Wymondham Music Festival (with Crying Lion)
5th July- “All In The Downs”- tribute to Shirley Collins, Southbank, London
25 July- Edinburgh, Sneaky Pete’s
26 July- Hebden Bridge, Trades Club
27 July- Brighton, The Greys (with Elle Osborn)
28 July- Ramsgate, Music Hall (with Elle Osborn) tbc
29 July- London, 229 Venue
30 July- Port Elliot festival, Cornwall
31 July- Tretheene, Treen, End of the Earth Festival
1 August- Exeter, Phoenix
2 August- Bath, The Bell
3 August- Coventry, Tin Music & Arts
5 August- Birmingham, Kitchen Garden Cafe
6 August- Oxford, The Cellar (with Jackie Oates)
7 August- Supernormal Festival, Oxfordshire
9 August- Leeds, Hyde Park Picture House (with Alasdair Roberts & Horseloom)
10 August- Leicester, The Musician (with Alasdair Roberts)
11 August- York, The Basement (with Alasdair Roberts & Horseloom)
12 August- Preston, Continental (with Alasdair Roberts & Horseloom)
13 August- Newcastle, Cumberland Arms (with Mike Heron & Horseloom)
14 August- Glasgow, Glad Cafe (with Alasdair Roberts & Horseloom)
22 August- Bert Jansch festival, The Bell, Ticehurst, Sussex
23 August- Doune the Rabbit Hole Festival, Scotland