Trembling Bells – Dungeness
Tin Angel – 30 March 2018
Although Dungeness retains the recognisable, trademark Trembling Bells band dynamic with its lineup – Alex Neilson, Lavinia Blackwell, Mike Hastings, Alasdair C. Mitchell and Simon Shaw – there’s also contributions from regular collaborator John Wilson (violin, penny whistle), plus a handful of extra musicians: Calum Calderwood on electric and acoustic violins, Allan Wright on symphonie (that’s a kind of early hurdy-gurdy, by the way), Paul Savage & Georgia Seddon on percussion, and three additional vocalists. But I could stick my neck out and offer the general observation that there’s a definite drawing-back from the highly heady psych-folk and medievalist antiquary of earlierTrembling Bells adventures and a forward-prog shift onto equally heady but altogether more rock-guitar-based tapestries redolent of a later age, the next room round on the haunted-house tour maybe. But interestingly too, the overall production of this new album feels less opaque and cluttered (thus less impenetrable) than some of Trembling Bells’s earlier records, with a more careful separation of parts and keener concentration on the guitar interplay than hitherto.
The album’s named after a particularly intractable geographical feature in the south of this country – a remote headland in deepest Kent that feels like another realm entirely, rather like the end of the earth as we know it. The title of the record’s opening track, Big Nothing, might thus be regarded as a mildly ironic description of that headland. A broad expanse of just over a minute’s duration, consisting of massive sweeping chords and a statement of quite possibly existential import – a kind of overture-without-beginners curtain-raiser for the big show that’s about to start. It has a majestic, if slightly end-of-the-pier chord progression, the kind of effect of drawing back the curtain on the stage show, perhaps. Your own reaction to Big Nothing may well be similar to that experienced by the group themselves when they visited Dungeness for the first time in 2015 and found it variously thrilling, and on the other hand flat, parched and arid – such minimalism has a habit of polarising reactions.
Big Nothing leaves us on the coastal edge, from which we’re plunged into a brooding, boiling ocean of psych fuzz and wah-wah guitars into which sails the stately Lavinia: this is Knockin’ On The Coffin (way up there into the stratosphere, but definitely not Heaven’s Door!). The cascading interlocking layers of guitar (style-wise aptly compared in Stewart Lee’s liner notes to the fretwork of SRC’s celebrated Gary Quackenbush, but less blisteringly upfront) grow ever more excitable and frantic before resolving into a majestic down-tempo coda. After which the chiming descending scale of My Father Was A Collapsing Star is by contrast almost pathetic, almost Robyn Hitchcock in its childishly weird imagery and faux-naïve vocal delivery, succeeded by a robust, full-on yo-ho-ho chorus of infectious charm. But then mid-track all this takes a sudden nosedive upwards, a turn into Astronomy Domine cosmic-freakout territory, before crash-landing back in Merrie England. The following track, Death Knocked At My Door, proves another extraordinary entry in the Trembling Bells canon, where a charging, galloping Doors riff and prominent organ ushers in Lavinia’s Siouxsie-Goth vocal with a dreamlike spacey bridge leading to a packed, energised (Creatures) percussion interlude, then it’s back to its mirror image for the unsettling closing sequence, and a cathartic final note held suspended in the air.
Christ’s Entry Into Govan (directly referencing James Ensor’s iconic 1889 painting, and – for me – also incidentally Adrian Henri’s creative response Christ’s Entry Into Liverpool) sets its nihilistic lyric about expectation never fulfilled to a surprisingly magniloquent mood and unhurried mid-tempo that gradually succumbs to the impatience of inevitability from the “to begin and never cease” mantra which builds and becomes ever more insistent as it spurs on an almost orgasmic accelerando and whirling-dervish fiddling that finally collapses under the weight of a peal of church bells sampled from the sanctity of a classic Powell & Pressburger film soundtrack.
The Prophet then plunges us into a grinding ’70s heavy-rock groove, apocalyptic Sabbath guitars with a splash of Purple organ and some hard-nosed wailing female vocal gymnastics recalling Babe Ruth’s mighty Janita: a nigh relentless (but hey, glorious) five-minute wall-of-noise. Devil In Dungeness lurches in on a sensuous, mystery-laden fractured rhythm that might almost be paying homage to the Canterbury bands. This Is How The World Will End at first seems something of a lull in the excitement stakes, or at any rate the least immediately arresting track, with an almost Handsome Family surreal tale set to a comparatively unmemorable melody; only the epic spaghetti-western-cum-Big-country instrumental-break guitarscape sticks in the memory to any real extent, bringing us back to the concept of the sprawling widescreen wastes of Dungeness perhaps.
Alex describes penultimate track I’m Coming as “a study in suffering and transcendence and culpability” that’s lyrically “very much in debt to Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis”. It’s one of Trembling Bells’ more directly listener-friendly creations, voiced in the Jefferson Airplane strain of electric folk-rock and climaxing with a typically Lavinia vocal swoop skywards before a lumbering neo-psychedelic coda. “I wanted the end section to sound like a gigantic structure rusting in the middle of the sea”, Alex says – which however doesn’t explain the track’s unreasonably abrupt cutoff.
Finally, we come to the enigmatic mythos that is the closing track Rebecca, Dressed As A Waterfall. This I suppose represents more customary Trembling Bells territory, its placing as the album’s end-game rather calling to mind a comparable positioning of The Circle Is Unbroken on the Incredible String Band’s Wee Tam & The Big Huge set. This impression is reinforced by a certain kinship in terms of musical character – a strongly folk-traditional ambience to Lavinia’s almost sean-nós vocal keening set to a primal drone backdrop of haunted, bleak whistle and drifting, clangorous dulcimer-like electric guitar (supported by the above-mentioned symphonie), to which are added a swooning violin and tumbling drums and a rather odd, somewhat misplaced twitter of bird-calls that render the remainder of the texture more cacophonous than concordant.
Dungeness forms both a logical next-tableau in their “constant pageant” and an equally logical temporal advance into a brave new world of harder-edged power-folk-rock, also providing further persuasive evidence of the ever-broadening evolutionary (and revolutionary) scope of their music. Trembling Bells are still very much a force to be reckoned with, of that let me leave you in no doubt.
Upcoming Trembling Bells Dates
03.04 Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh (Tickets)
04.04 Hallam Student Union, Sheffield (Tickets)
05.04 Marc Riley BBC Radio 6 Music session
06.04 The Continental, Preston (Tickets)
07.04 Hyde Park Book Club, Leeds (Tickets)
08.04 The Golden Lion, Todmorden (Tickets)
09.04 The Cookie, Leicester (Tickets)
10.04 The Tin Music & Arts, Coventry (Tickets)
11.04 Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club , London (Tickets)
12.04 The Brunswick, Brighton (Tickets)
13.04 The Railway, Winchester (Tickets)
14.04 Ace Arts Space, Newbury (Tickets)