Alex Rex – Vermillion
Tin Angel – 28 April 2017
Vermillion is the debut album from someone who needs no introduction, for behind the regal moniker of Alex Rex is singer, songwriter and drummer Alex Neilson. And it would be simple to add ‘from Trembling Bells’, and that would be enough to get excited about this release. Straddling the worlds of folk, rock, experimental and Americana, in seven years Trembling Bells have built an astonishing back catalogue of weird and wonderful music.
But Alex is also the force behind Death Shanties, Crying Lion, alongside forays in Ashtray Navigations, Directing Hand and Tight Meat Duo (to name but few). And that doesn’t even touch on his collaboration with other artists including Richard Youngs, Will Oldham, Mike Heron and Scott Fagan. Most notable is his recent (outstanding) work drumming as part of Shirley Collins’ Lodestar project, live and in the studio.
So why the switch to solo? And why the sobriquet? And I suppose the answer is, ‘why not?’ As friend and collaborator Alasdair Roberts (another restless, creative soul) writes in his introduction to the album, ‘It takes a certain temerity for an artist to adopt such a regal appellation! Of course, it’s not without its precedents, but one must have a great deal of self-belief to pull it off – and that’s what Vermillion manages, at last, to do.’
One of the challenges of writing this review is Alasdair’s eloquent and insightful introduction. He sums up this brilliant and balmy release in such succinct and revealing terms. ‘The opener The Screaming Cathedral, a song which stands in similar relation to Renaissance polyphony as the work of Francis Bacon does to Velázquez,’ writes Roberts. Top that.
But such a daring and playful album deserves more unpacking, so we won’t let Roberts have the final word (yet)…
Vermillion begins with the aforementioned Screaming Cathedral. Pulsing drone sounds, over which Alex and fellow Trembling Bells singer Lavinia Blackwall sing an uncompromising song, which features this chorus/refrain, ‘And it’s horror heaped on horror, horror heaped on horror…’ We can confidently assure you that this is not Alex going ‘mainstream’.
Please God Make Me Good (But Not Yet) opens like an old-time country tune, with a deceptively conventional song structure and arrangement. Of course, being Alex, there is much more going on, and the lyrics tell a different story. ‘St Augustine’s sleeping/ His dreams are disturbed/ A dead bird in the stomach/ Of another dead bird…’ The album is shot through with these lyrical slingshots that hit you between the eyes and force you to listen anew. Not since Bob Dylan’s ‘65-’66 output has there been such pithy, strange and quotable neo-nonsense on an album. And I don’t use ‘nonsense’ as a derogatory term, these are jolts and affronts to our ordinary existence, glimpses through the cracks of the everyday into Alex’s perplexing and eerie world. They’re often laugh-out-loud funny, and much ruder than Dylan too…
Postcards From a Dream (the lead single with an appropriately perplexing video, see below), sounds like Dylan’s Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again having a fight with the Joe 90 theme music. In parts it’s almost a rewrite of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited ‘When Abraham got the message/ He approached his newborn child/ With a scalpel between his teeth/ An apologetic smile/ But me I’m waiting here by the alter/ Just an ox head an axehead and me…’ It takes some balls to write yourself into a Dylan classic and the Old Testament at the same time.
The Perpetually Replenished Cup starts like it’s fallen off a Tremblings Bells album, slinking between a folk rock song and a hymn, but quickly segues into a circus/carnival interlude that could be the Bonzos. It’s a tune that keeps turning inside-out and back again, while Alex sings demented lines like, ‘Her smile is sweet/ In menstrual blood/ That I’ve always secretly liked the taste of’. It’s fair to say that Alex isn’t censoring himself to conform to social norms.
Lucy could be a Merle Haggard song if he was backed by psychedelic cowboys and sang more songs about rose thorns growing in his throat. While The Worm Turns is like a latter-day Incredible String Band number, with added experimental heavy-metal guitar. Meanwhile, Song For Dora, which opens unaccompanied, builds into Safe As Milk-era Beefheart. It continues the themes of religion, mysticism, sex and bodily fluids that permeate the whole album (along with teeth, birds and cathedrals) before a wild-eyed Lou Reed-esq rant, which breaks out into a proto-gregorian chant. Yes, the album doesn’t settle down or compromise as it goes on.
Despite featuring some of the dirtiest, discordant electric guitar, The Life Of A Wave is one of the most catchy songs on an album that’s not inviting you to sing along. But you might just on this one, which is like a missing classic track from Mike Heron’s Smiling Men With Bad Reputations.
This short-but-satisfyingly-so selection ends with a fully acapella song which showcases Alex’s expressive and compulsive voice, an eloquent and commanding conclusion (while a bit explicit at the same time).
Alex is an artist with a singular, uncompromising vision that he expresses in multifaceted and always fascinating ways. It would be easy to end by saying ‘this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea’. But that depends on what you want from tea: bland supermarket sweepings to produce an inoffensive milky brew? Or do you hanker for smoky, exotic Lapsang Souchong? Full-bodied, spicy and refreshing Celon? Or rich, dark and malty first flush Assam?
‘The final product, though mercurial, is a coherent distillation of the artist’s various influences, preoccupations and concerns – a nine-song window into a complex and inquisitive musical mind,’ writes Alasdair Roberts. Long live the king.
Vermillion is out on 28 April via Tin Angel