Dungeness by Trembling BellsRelease date: March 30, 2018
Label: Tin Angel
Borne out of a visit to the Kent seashore at Dungeness, the weird medieval progressive psych of Trembling Bells seems somewhat at odds with this low lying land. Maybe there was something which called them forth in the marshes though, as the willo-the-wisp playfulness pervades the eerie stillness that can only come from the sea at night. The emptiness does something to the mind, and in that imaginations run riot, which in the case of Trembling Bells, both unnerved and excited. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of their latest album Dungeness.
Almost completely difficult to pigeon-hole, Trembling Bells have been something of a hidden gem in the strange underground world of UK acid folk. Equally at home with atonal prog rock, as they are with pastoral Sandy Denny ballads, the song-writing of Alex Nielsen contains more twists and turns than your average British B road. You can stilll sense that innate Scottishnesss though, as they reap the darkness at the heart of folk peers such as Belle and Sebastian and Arab Strap to continue that vein of unusual music from the highlands.
Not that Trembling Bells sound anything like those two groups, or any other for that fact. They simply sound like no-one else ever. Or ever will be. Take the faux-triumphant beginning of ‘Big Nothing’ where they chime that they have been “the best version of mysef, that its possible to be”, it crescendo’s before dropping into the weird witchiness of ‘Knockin’ On The Coffin’ whose foreboding bass gives way to a mysterious guitar motif which summons up the dark enchantment of The Wicker Man, leaving a queasy feeling as Lavinia Blackwell weaves her way into your mind like some proverbial phantom of god knows what. Equal parts Kate Bush and Sandy Denny, there is a peculiar enticing vibe to her which brings your ear in closer as she sings.
‘My Father Was A Collapsing Star’ is a glorious moment of what used to be called indie music. It’s minor key changes, built on a whimsical lyric which hides a darkness within, it contains the wonderful line “and you cam tripping down the stair, which half remembered story…”. Its vision of wild haired excitement building into the fist pumping celebratory chorus. As it dissolves into a psychedelic stew evoking those old children’s TV shows of old where the special effects and music cast a weird displacement upon your young minds, leaving you sleepless for nights, it suddenly explodes in colourful glory as the guitar takes you soaring up. “My instinct was a basking shark” indeed, as you wonder where Nielsen will take you next.
Ancient rituals are stirred within ‘Death Knocked At My Door’ as the wild abandonment of the drum solo erupts from the nervous tension. In contrast to this is the stunningly beautiful ‘Christ’s Entry Into Govan’ which sees Blackwell deliver a vocal performance which simply rips your entire emotions from you. It’s one of those moments where time seems to stand still, as her vocals become the centre of your entire world. The band become the magicians in the background, weaving their tapestry to this free spirited angel. The only way for it to raise itself out of this reverie is to spin itself into a dervish towards the end, as your head spins with delight.
After this it can only get darker as the distorted guitar of ‘The Prophet’ leads us into a doom filled arena. More interesting is the progressive epic Devil In Dungeness, whose sly organ sound hides behind a song of monstrously prog proportions. It’s the kind of prog which has been lost since the Canterbury days, but here beats its heart in 7/8 time against a build up of all manner of twists and turns. That ‘This is How The World Will End’ sounds resolutely normal after this, is testament to the oddness you have been witness too. It also serves as a wonderful little moment of reflection before the weirdness kicks in again.
The exultant vocals of ‘I’m Coming’ is that moment when true possession takes place and the band become pat of your soul. You already feel a million miles away from where you started, here the band hold your hand and invite you to stay. Quite frankly, they are a band you would want to stay with forever anyway, very rare do you find music so life-affirming. By the time the pipes of ‘Rebecca, Dressed As A Waterfall’ bring some of the classic pastoral quality of folk back, albeit toned down to a mysterious quality, you simply don’t want to go home. Trembling Bells have taken you to a place where you just might find yourself wanting to stay forever.
Having built a rather formidable back catalogue, Dungeness is the icing on the cake as far as all that is concerned, and as well as making the best album of their career so far, they may very well have made the best album of the year. All things are subjective of course, but it will be a rare year indeed if anyone else managed to make an album of such unusual proportions. Maybe a little too out there to break into the mainstream, a few choice festival slots may see that change, and rightfully so. Music like this should be celebrated and loved for its creativity, joy and artfulness. The entire album is an absolute joy from start to finish.