Dungeness - a headland on the Kentish Channel Coast, home to a nuclear power station and, towards the end of his life, Derek Jarman. And, in the words of Trembling Bells' songwriter and drummer, Alex Nielsen, "Just a void. When we arrived at Dungeness, it felt like the end of the earth". The Bells visited Dungeness en masse in 2015, and whilst Nielsen seems to have taken to the place with some alacrity for the quality just described, apparently the other four band members hated it. Strange then, that this corner of England has inspired the Glasgow-based band to make what may well be their finest album yet.
Having undergone something of a false hiatus last year, with Alex's nominally solo (and, incidentally, excellent) project Alex Rex's album "Vermillion" (made with a band containing both guitarist Mike Hastings and vocalist / keyboard player Lavinia Blackwall from the mothership), Trembling Bells return with a set of songs which reinforce their status as one of the most interesting bands to emerge from the folk scene, with a palette which is both catholic and coherent.
Opener "Big Nothing" leans nonchanlantly against the chords of Hastings and fellow guitarist Alistair C. Mitchell, as Nielsen and Blackwall harmonise from a bleak "Oh it's hard to knock down a man who's already on the ground" towards a positive end: "Still I'm the best version of myself that it's possible to be; now I'm living the only life that's available to me." Having significantly reduced his vocal inputs on Bells albums from the time of their debut "Carbeth", it's good to hear Alex back in some force throughout the album, and in particular interfacing with Lavinia to such good effect.
The twin guitars of Hastings and Mitchell introduce "Knockin' on the Coffin", a nightmarish vision of bestiality sung by Blackwall, and displaying her enormous range. Mitchell is a fairly late addition to the band, joining for 2015's "The Sovereign Self" which itself introduced markedly more elements of 60s garage and prog to the well-established folk-rock mixture. The interplay with Hastings here sees crystalline sustained notes underpinned by some furious fret-scratching. "My Father Was a Collapsing Star" which follows, sees Nielsen take over on vocals, the guitars and keyboards on this one producing a veritable tintinnabulation worthy of the band's name.
The pace ramps up on "Death Knocked at my Door", and here Blackwall sounds uncannily like Siouxsie Sioux, backed by a chuggling guitar worthy of Richard Thompson, with a furious percussion build-up leading to a break-down which channels Gong - an indication of the sheer eclecticism the Bells can lean on. "Christ's Entry into Govan" is much more recognisably the Trembling Bells of yore, with Thompson's influence again recognisable in the guitars, and Blackwall's voice twining round a lyric in which Nielsen shows his penchant for rooting the sacred in the everyday. The piece is drawn towards a frantic climax over the repeated phrase "To begin and never cease", an uncredited fiddle joining in with the ensemble. Mention should also be made here of bass player Simon Shaw who unobtrusively provides a solid rhythmic backdrop along with Nielsen's crashing cymbals. The sound of real bells fades out.
"The Prophet" seems, almost unbelievably, to draw on the sound of early Black Sabbath, beginning with a simple descending riff on bass and lead, which is then echoed by a further heavily wah-wah'd guitar. Blackwall again soars and swoops, this time very much in keeping with the early 70s mood, the song leaping into a break worthy of Wishbone Ash in their prime. "Devil in Dungeness", perhaps the high point of the set, sits astride a riff that echoes Hillage and an organ sound direct from late 60s Los Angeles. The guitar solo in this song is both grungy and trippy, and again the song reaches a crescendo in which you can imagine Blackwood whirling around the stage in one of her trademark home-made print gowns, an incantation of malevolence in the titular sea air. Having suggested a high-point, though, every track has its merits, and the range of styles is simultaneously impressive and lucid.
Nielsen's vocal retakes the lead on "This Is How the World Will End", one of his deceptively simple songs, which sounds like Dylan might have in 1967, had he kept control of the bike and his chemical intake. With an interlude which seems to evince Hendrix playing the Tennessee Waltz, Nielsen again struggles between the sacred and the profane, the female and the male: "The Madonna and the whore knocked on my bedroom door; I love my Lord Jesus, but I love them even more."
"I'm Coming" (stop sniggering at the back there) sees Blackwall again soar through an echo- and feedback-drenched modern secular hymn, which cuts off abruptly before we're pulled into a final track "Rebecca, Dressed as a Waterfall" which pulls the Bells way back to their days of touring with the ISB's Mike Heron (still an occasional sideline of theirs), a sparse electric guitar and penny whistle, occasionally interrupted by birdsong and, if I'm not mistaken, something akin to a Dik Mik audio generator, carrying the first half of the burden until Nielsen's free-jazz drums kick in, the whole combining with that fiddle again, in a cathartic, chaotic and quite wonderful end.
If this review seems to list the numerous influences I can detect, it's simply because we're living in times 60 years and more after the launch of rock'n'roll, and nobody lives free of influence. The greatest talents around today have to shape their various influences into a coherent and vital contemporary sound, and there is no doubt that Trembling Bells have produced this in "Dungeness", and given life to an album which will be in many people's annual best of lists. Hopefully they can also begin to make a bigger impact on the wider public consciousness with it.
I'm stunned in a very, very good way. Buy it. See them on their forthcoming tour. Join me in my astonishment.
|Darwin's Daughter: The Dark||The Vagaband: Something Wicked This Way Comes|
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