There can be no doubting either the ambition or the eccentricity of Trembling Bells. The Scottish melody-loving, prog-soloing troubadours have just released their fourth album, decorated with portraits of talismanic writers and musicians from Dante to Dennis Potter, and packed with a set of wilfully bizarre and beautiful tracks. Over everything hangs the antic spirit of The Incredible String Band and Mike Heron, with whom The Bells have recently toured.
The title quotes Potter’s classic TV drama, The Singing Detective, and signifies self-definition, self-direction and personal freedom. The theme is the myth and attraction of place, everywhere from Glasgow to Padstow. The first track, ‘‘Tween the Womb and the Tomb’, sets the agenda immediately. Lavinia Blackwall, her imperious folk diva voice at instant full throttle, sings: “Oh to find a place where each new deed isn’t rendered vain / By the spreading sea of a nameless pain.” Over eight minutes both she and her bandmates drive on upwards, ending in a wall of stabbing organ overload, something like ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida’ played backwards. This is entirely representative of the whole album – eight tracks, all but one over five minutes, characterised by esoteric lyrics, grand declarations and all round flamboyance.
The Sovereign Self continues where The Marble Downs, Trembling Bells’ collaboration with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, left off. While their first three albums, Carbeth, Abandoned Love and The Constant Pageant often sounded like lost Fairport Convention circa 1970, they have since moved a little further from the traditional template and learned to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Their music has become pleasingly unrestrained, so much so that they spend some of their new album reanimating the Glee-flayed corpse of ‘70s rock balladeering. Fortunately, this a much better idea than it might sound.
‘Killing Time in London Fields’ has an awesome vocal performance, Blackwall withering all in her path, and a particularly unrestrained guitar solo. It is also about Zoroastrianism. ‘Sweet Death Polka’ tackles cliché, references Yo La Tengo and jams without restraint, while ‘(Perched Like a Drunk On A) Miserichord’ has an Anglo-Scots wildness to match its title. ‘Bells of Burford’ brings motorik rhythms and the “huntsman of death” to Cameron’s Cotswolds.
The duet ‘O, Where is St George?’ combines mad-eyed Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band psychedelia with the harmonies and harmonica of The Watersons’ Bright Phoebus, and combines “Lou Reed, Lauren Bacall and Asterix the Gaul” in a single, gloriously insane line. The album plays out with ‘I Is Someone Else’, the most classically Trembling Bells of all the tracks, with an addictive melody from Blackwall and a bell-like guitar sounds, and references to the A61. The Sovereign Self is Trembling Bells’ best album yet, and with their forthcoming residency at Café OTO in London, collaborating with Martin Carthy and Alasdair Roberts, promises to be essential for lovers of esoteric music.