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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.
© MC Strong 2011/GFD2 // rev-up MCS Mar2015-Apr2016

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