Back in the late 1960s, there was nothing that unusual about psychedelic folk rock bands churning out nine-minute epics about long-dead lovers and mythical heroes. The likes of Fairport Convention and The Incredible String Band achieved Top 5 albums and headlined festivals, sitting comfortably alongside other pioneering acts as part of a post-Summer of Love mainstream music scene that was embracing experimentation like never before.
Glasgow’s Trembling Bells would almost certainly have thrived in that era and it is rather a shame that in today’s less radical climate they are almost certainly destined to remain niche curiosities. The Sovereign Self, their fifth album since forming in 2008, is a confident, richly textured record that will offer much to enjoy for those willing to seek it out.
First track ‘Tween The Womb And The Tomb tells you all you need to know about Trembling Bells. Clocking in at a shade over eight minutes, it begins with singer Lavinia Blackwell’s soaring, passionate vocal – somewhere between Sandy Denny and Siouxsie Sioux – which is soon joined by a jagged, raga like guitar motif. Around the half way mark, we get a sudden, unexpected flurry of King Crimson-like organ cascades before the tempo shifts again towards more conventional folk balladry. It’s a heady brew, but pulled off with panache and fine musicianship.
The following seven tracks are no less compelling. O’ Where is St George sees band founder Alex Neilson and Blackwell alternating then harmonising their vocals, chanting lyrics that teeter precariously between genius and madness, for example imagining a time – “where Lou Reed and Lauren Bacall/defeated Asterix the Gaul.” These eclectic references are perhaps unsurprising when you consider the album’s title is taken from a Dennis Potter TV play and its cover includes a series of paintings by Blackwell depicting everyone from the aforementioned Reed to the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson and ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus. Coldplay they certainly ain’t.
Back to the music, and while The Singing Blood and Sweet Death Polka are lovely but (by Trembling Bells standards) relatively vanilla (a mad wig out at the end on the latter notwithstanding), Bells Of Burford is something else entirely – a monolithic slab of progressive rock boasting guitar and keyboard pyrotechnics that would even make Yes pause for thought.
Over these seven minutes of controlled mayhem, Trembling Bells arguably travel further beyond their starting point in traditional folk music than any act in the genre has ever done before. It is a startling piece of work from a group who seem willing to try anything. It’s almost a surprise that we don’t see hip hop or dubstep worked in somewhere. Album closer I Is Someone Else is almost as stellar, with Blackwell’s strident voice propelling The Sovereign Self towards a conclusion of duelling electric guitar solos that once again is about as far removed from real ale and knitted sweater stereotypes as it’s possible to get. The addition of second guitarist Alasdair C Mitchell has added extra muscularity to the already potent riffs and rhythms of the group’s previous records, and the sound created is frequently extraordinary.
Sprawling, strange, baffling and beguiling, this psychedelic treasure is unlikely to appeal to the unadventurous, but it’s hard to imagine there will be another album released anywhere this year that’s quite like it.