Sunday 16 August 2015

Peal sessions: Trembling Bells

I’m convinced that Trembling Bells are one of the best bands currently active, and possibly of all time. This post aims to convince you too.

Recently, the group released their latest album, ‘The Sovereign Self’. Many right-thinking people, I’m sure, would describe this record as ‘long-awaited’. Trembling Bells began in a burst of prolific activity – three majestic albums in as many years. The fact that one of their finest songs (‘Goathland’) appeared early in the band’s life on a sampler CD but only made its official, more polished bow on the third record suggests that tunes may have been pouring out of the band’s chief songwriter – and drummer/vocalist – Alex Nielsen, even as he was nailing down the sound he wanted to achieve.

And the sound is… Well. On the surface, you might call it folk-rock. Or, to borrow a more recent term, you might hear ‘psyche-folk’ in it. It’s all of that and more besides. It mixes not only genres, but ideas, personalities. While the folk influence may well be the over-riding feature – or perhaps just the most convenient tag – everything about how the band operates unglues any idea of a ‘trad’ approach, instead focusing firmly on the present and future.

One reason for this is the key personalities involved. To start with Alex N – he is upfront about how certain folk luminaries – Shirley Collins, Martin Carthy – helped him to form his musical character. But in essence, I feel AN is a jazz drummer – a quality that already sets the Bells apart. Somehow making me think of both Billy Higgins and Paul Motian – among others – at the same time, he can keep a rocking beat with the best of them, but seems to use the kit as much for colour and embellishment, helping the song along like you might a hoop with a drumstick. His playing never settles – it’s always doing more, finding new ways to support the song without over-dominating.

(Meshing genres in this way – not to create a bolted-together fusion but more to alter the ‘fabric’ of the overall sound – is, to me, a sign of forward-thinking creativity. It seems quite suited to freestyle drumming – listen to how Brann Dailor lifts the sound of the metal band Mastodon – or, to give another example, there’s also the sadly short-lived way Portico Quartet constructed a kind of alien ethereal jazz by making an instrument called the hang a fundamental feature of their music.)

AN’s lyrics also pull the Bells away from folk cliché, often fixed in the personal realm and with a very current sense of time and place: "Killing time in Clerkenwell"; "When Lou Reed and Lauren Bacall / Defeated Asterix the Gaul"; "Tilt towards the A61"...

Main vocalist and keyboard player, Lavinia Blackwall, has a truly exceptional voice, and the perfect voice for the band. Able to scale angelic heights, she can then assume a more earthbound/earthy tone at no notice, simultaneously breaking hearts, lifting spirits and loosening collars: you can hear this effect in the chorus of ‘Goathland’ – try around 2:30 to 2:40.

With this much going on, it’s perhaps easy to see why Trembling Bells have too many ideas for one band. AN and LB have previous form in an improvising duo called Directing Hand, and AN unleashes the fury in a free jazz trio called Death Shanties – possibly unique in that, alongside drums and saxophone, one member creates abstract art spontaneously while they play – matching a moment of visual creation to the instantly-composed music. AN and LB also both sing, alongside Katy Cooper and Harry Campbell of traditional troupe Muldoon’s Picnic, in a mostly unaccompanied quartet called Crying Lion.

(Digression: I adore Crying Lion, and I urge you to get their LP, ‘The Golden Boat’ – somehow more mystery-soaked than the main band, the mix of voices, which blend and yet remain four distinct characters, creates shiver-down-the-spine stuff. Singing stereotypes are not followed: the ‘softer’ voices are Katy C and Alex N – who often openly downplays his singing ability, but in fact has a fragile timbre but solid technique, a tender line cosseted by the others; Lavinia B provides some of the grit to match Harry C’s lower register. In its own, quietly forceful way, Crying Lion’s ancient acoustic is confrontational, challenging and rewarding. Recommended.)

They also have a knack of working with their heroes and influences. The band have an ongoing live partnership with Incredible String Band veteran Mike Heron, and they collaborated across an entire – superb – album called ‘The Marble Downs’ with Bonnie Prince Billy. So, rather than writer’s block or some other kind of creative freeze, in the four years since previous Bells album ‘The Constant Pageant’ it’s a wonder they’ve found time to make ‘The Sovereign Self’ at all. Let alone make it a masterpiece.

With eight fairly lengthy tracks, one of the most pleasing aspects of the new record is how the sound seems fit to burst, pushing against its constraints – as if the Bells had found a way to reflect or symbolise their broiling stew of elements in audio form. In the past, say, the debut album ‘Carbeth’ stretched out in new-born eccentricity (I still believe that its first track, ‘I Listed All The Velvet Lessons’, is one of the great opening statements by any band), while the next two records arguably saw them hone this tendency into a sharper attack.

With ‘The Sovereign Self’, they somehow find the meeting point between all that has gone before – the epics return, but with multiple strands and sections – and a kind of fearless, complex all-out rock that sees them take a flying leap forward.

Close listening reaps all kinds of rewards. For example, one of my favourite tracks, ‘O, Where Is Saint George?’, starts with the chorus chanted above a free-form swell of sound, before the country-rock shuffle of the verses kicks in. But then, when the chorus returns, a ritualistic rhythm pounds beneath it … and finally, the third time, they somehow attach the verses’ loping beat to the chorus, binding the whole shebang together.

Possibly the most thrilling signature touch in the whole album for me comes right near the end, in the rollicking closer ‘I Is Someone Else’. The song rattles along at a terrific clip, with Lavinia B’s vocal line gradually rising a couple of times in each verse until she arrives at one of those ‘release’ notes – that is, the exact pitch you’ve somehow been wanting her to reach. Just before that point, Alex N’s drumming switches for no more than a bar or so to half-speed. The effect is of the band standing back in appreciation of the voice – a split-second inner “Woah!” – before the top note triggers them into picking the pace back up in an instant. A seemingly casual detail that makes the song so much more powerful.

It’s tempting to describe all of the other six tracks as fellow highlights. I could mention ‘The Singing Blood’, which has a sort of halting resolve that puts me in mind of the first Palace Brothers album (what greater compliment?). There’s ‘Killing Time in London Fields’, which uses organ and guitar first to match riffs, then dovetail two hooks within each other, and on top of all that, literally stop the clocks mid-verse. I’ll let you discover the other half of the album for yourself.

Luckily for me, the band’s latest tour included three London dates. First up was a two-night residency at Café Oto to celebrate the album launch. Some superb guests were lined up across the two evenings, which only goes to show how much the respect Trembling Bells pay towards other artist-influences is returned. Particular high points for me were hearing Alasdair Roberts play a beautiful set on night one, then the following evening to see Martin Carthy – yes, I know – ten feet away in the same spot, holding the audience spellbound.

But the main event – both at the residency and the follow-up gig in 229 The Venue a few weeks later – are unquestionably the Bells themselves. Always playing ‘forward’ – in the set proper, we get just one ‘oldie’, most of the new record and an even younger, spectacular track called ‘The Wide Majestic Aire’ – they harness, replicate then ramp up the controlled chaos into a riotous swirl.

If you like thrilling, thinking music, Trembling Bells are absolutely made for you. Catch them live, then give into that irresistible impulse to buy the album at the merch stand. It’ll be a hardy companion.

PS! While I realise you might need a full-time manservant to keep up with all the band’s activities on your behalf, one extra-curricular release you shouldn’t miss is the special single made for this year’s Record Store Day. The 7” physical copies are still around here and there, but limited – however, both songs are available on download. ‘Hallelujah’ – not that one – is a brilliant and concise hybrid of folk mantra and pop song (ace as it is, you can see why it might not have felt like a natural fit for the album), while the flipside is a soaring cover of George Harrison’s ‘Wah Wah’. Any argument needed for keeping the single alive? – Here it is.

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