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Trembling Bells

+ {Black Flowers} + {Crying Lion}

If one could envisage SHIRLEY COLLINS fronting The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND, then Glasgow’s TREMBLING BELLS would be the fantasy league folk team; the fact that ISB’s former conspirator MIKE HERON combines with the quartet on Xmas promo-single `Feast Of Stephen’ – flipped 2010 with a group collaboration with BONNIE `PRINCE’ BILLY – gives the notion more base and substance.
Prior to the formation of TREMBLING BELLS (aka Lavinia Blackwall on vocals, Alex Neilson on vocals and drums – alongside Ben Reynolds and Simon Shaw), Alex’s discographical development took shape via avant-indie collaborative, namely mini-CD-R `Hellvetica Is The Perfume Of The City’ (2004; alongside Ben Reynolds, ISOBEL CAMPBELL, Phil Todd and Andy Jarvis), LPs `Belsayer Time’ (2006; with ALISTAIR GALBRAITH and RICHARD YOUNGS), `Graveside Doles’ (2006; with Greg Kelley), a credit on Matt Valentine’s `Untitled’ LP (2006), BONNIE `PRINCE’ BILLY’s `Is It The Sea?’ (2008) and the free jazz improv, `Passport To Satori’ (2009 w/ Greg Kelley); experimentalists Motor Ghost (featuring Neilson and Reynolds) issued a limited-edition, `A Gold Chain Round Her Breast’ LP, in 2007. Alex’s free jazz-noise outfit Directing Hand (featuring a revolving door of group musos including Reynolds) released several limited edition mini-CD-R’s, etc., including neo-folk set, `Bells For Augustin Lesage’ (2005); BLACK FLOWERS (Vinnie and Alex’s other project with Michael Hastings) predated TB by a matter of months courtesy of one-off project/set I GREW FROM A STONE TO A STATUE (2009) {*6}; check out one-time TREES staple `Polly On The Shore’, shared with guest ALASDAIR ROBERTS.
With folk music a force to be reckoned with across the pond (FLEET FOXES, ESPERS, et al), surely it was time for fresh-faced Brit-folk fodder to take some plaudits – thankfully rock luminaries PAUL WELLER and Joe Boyd almost immediately endorsed TB’s debut set for Honest Jon’s Records, CARBETH (2009) {*7}. Yes, it was rather DENNY-esque in nature (example `Willows Of Carbeth’), but cohesive Caledonian-cum-COLLINS cues like `I Listed All Of The Velvet Lessons’, `I Took To You (Like Christ To Wood)’ and `Garland Of Stars’ harked to the halcyon days of the late 60s and early 70s.
ABANDONED LOVE (2010) {*7} was another to bring back ye olde magick of yore, Lavinia’s near-operatic pitches and Alex’s minstrel-like ISB overtones twisting and turning between medieval and baroque freak-folk; check out `All Good Men Come Last’, `Man Is A Garden Born’ (ah the crumhorn) and `September Is The Month Of Death’.
Enlisting BLACK FLOWERS cohort Michael Hastings, THE CONSTANT PAGEANT (2011) {*8} concept was borne. Steeped in tradition and seething in fuzz, acid and er, full-on arrangements, Lavinia’s high-pitched GRACE SLICK-esque swoons struggle to surface above the rhapsodic glam crescendos; though with a great degree of patience and diligence (like all great rock bands), the tracks that should shake the shackles from one’s heart are arguably(?) `Where Do I Go From You?’, `Just As The Rainbow’ and `Colour Of Night’.
Dumbing down their subsequent touring schedule, TREMBLING BELLS went on to do a five-night spread in partnership with MIKE HERON, while the Scottish folk scene was merged with American star BONNIE PRINCE BILLY for `The Duchess’ EP, and fourth set, THE MARBLE DOWNS (2012) {*7}. Underlining several authored by Neilson, one by BPB himself (`Riding’), a song penned by ROBIN GIBB (`Lord Bless All’) and the traditional lament `My Husband’s Got No Courage In Him’, the dual singers Lavinia and Will Oldham compete rather than combine; the latter wrestling with his pitch as subtly and gloriously as ever. Opening to a triumphant fanfare of brass and off-kilter harmonies, `I Made A Date (With An Open Vein)’ was a gorgeous starter, while The BEAUTIFUL SOUTH could well’ve been an accidental inspiration for `I Can Tell You’re Leaving’. Pomp and circumstance come to mind for `Ferrari In A Demolition Derby’ and a Dorothy Parker poem is utilised for `Excursions Into Assonance’; believe it not, the ghostly keys of INSPIRAL CARPETS almost echo all around the set’s top track `Ain’t Nothing Wrong With A Little Longing’. Conspicuous by their absence, a tour supporting PAUL WELLER the following August was greeted well.
Teaming up with Glasgow’s Muldoon’s Picnic alumni Harry Campbell and Katy Cooper (who were also credited on `The Duchess’ EP), Lavinia and Alex unleashed a vinyl-only set as CRYING LION: THE GOLDEN BOAT (2015) {*5}. Described as a unique blend of the visionary and the earthly, the four-part a cappella combo brought elements of Sacred Harp, Gregorian chant, medieval madrigal and English psych-folk to a night at Govan’s Old Parish Church. Poetic inspiration came via Maya Deren, Saint John The Divine and Dennis Potter, while arguably the best pieces came through `A Boy’s Dream’ and `Christ Made A Trance’.
As for TREMBLING BELLS, fresh material came by way of THE SOVEREIGN SELF (2015) {*8}, entitled so from a line by aforementioned cult playwright Dennis Potter. Adding veteran guitarist Alasdair C. Mitchell (ex-BANGTWISTER, The OWSLEY SUNSHINE et al) to the core had the effect of turning back the clock to halcyon turn-of-the-70s folk-rock days, while stepping into the muddy festival boots of the “proper” FAIRPORTs – nothing “Myths & Legends” about this lot. Intermittently switching singers was of DENNY and THOMPSON proportions, respectively called upon through the echo-y opener “Tween The Womb And The Tomb’ and a re-make of “Padstow May Day Song”: `O, Where Is Saint George?’ (“O, Where Is VELVET UNDERGROUND?” more like). Hidden under TREES or JEFFERSON AIRPLANE fronting The MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA and a myriad of chord changes, `Killing Time In London Fields’ wigged out frenetically – oh! and be sure to wear flowers in your hair. An blossoming album that grows on the listener with every play, the emotion-fuelled duel/jewel `Sweet Death Polka’ or The BAND-like `The Singing Blood’ press-played the time machine once again. The concluding glorious 10 minutes pulled out the hoedown jig-a-jig `(Perched Like A Drunk On A) Misericord’ and what seemed to sound like STEREOLAB being overlapped by BOWIE’s “Width Of A Circle” on `I Is Someone Else’. Truly masterful and worthy of psych/folk-rock fans from America giving it a few spins; they did with FLEET FOXES, BON IVER and The DECEMBERISTS – awe, ‘cause they were American? – irony, irony.
Although only featuring half a dozen tracks (seven appeared on the vinyl version a la the cappella `The Day Maya Deren Died’), 2016’s half-hour mini-set WIDE MAJESTIC AIRE {*6} was still a fitting entry to the group’s evergreen CV. Important to today’s flighty folk scene, the well-named record recalled renaissance-period FAIRPORTs, masterfully played on the evocative `Shallows Of Carbeth’, `Show Me A Hole (And I’ll Crawl In It)’, `England Was Aghast’ and the waltzing title track.
Look out soon for a re-vamped “No Roses” collaboration with SHIRLEY COLLINS (who’s turned 80) and a traditional songs set accompanied by cult comedian Stewart Lee, whom they’d backed the previous year.
Buoyed by another collaborative release in 2016 alongside the masterful BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY (the live, 2012-recorded “The Bonnie Bells Of Oxford”), main songwriter Neilson and his TREMBLING BELLS were reeling back the years on 2018’s other-worldly DUNGENESS {*8}. In the interim the quintet had re-enlisted Alasdair C. Mitchell to replace Jackson, and in this searing gothic-folk affair, the group came up trumps on the almost poignant, `Knockin’ On The Coffin’, `My Father Was A Collapsing Star’, `Christ’s Entry Into Govan’ (adapted from James Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry Into Brussels In 1889”), and the heavyweight `The Prophet’; the latter described by Lavinia – who sadly left that autumn – as something akin to CURVED AIR in a cauldron with BLACK SABBATH; or thereabouts.
© MC Strong 2011/GFD2 // rev-up MCS Mar2015-Oct2018

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