For the members of Trembling Bells, 2015 must seem a strange and cold place to be a working band. The Scottish collective bathe themselves in the sounds and stories of the past and are more likely to be found performing around a Pagan monument than headlining your local mega arena. Taking traditional folk sounds and intertwining them with shades of prog and krautrock, they lean heavily on yesteryear without creating a pastiche of their record collections. The Sovereign Self, the group’s fifth LP, is like no other album you’ll hear this year. Psychedelic, dark and written during a binge of Greek tragedies, it’s a dramatic and mysterious set of songs.
Opening track Tween the Womb and the Tomb is a brooding number that merges eastern-sounding guitar work with an expansive and dramatic vocal that sends shivers down your spine. If Scotland’s rugby team felt the urge to take on a more menacing national anthem to lead the team out at matches, this would certainly be a suitable response to the New Zealand haka. The album’s pattern switches from these more rockier moments to traditional folk songs, such as O. Where Is Saint George? demonstrating the band’s first-class musicianship and eclectic range throughout.
It’s on the moments where the band really let themselves go that the real fun lies though, such as the erratic and pulsating Killing Time in London Fields, which never lets you go from the moment its whirring and mesmerising synths kick in. Lavinia Blackwall’s howl-like vocals would send even the most dastardly wolf whimpering away with its tail between its legs. Flickering time-changes, visually-engaging lyrics and powerful instrumentation all contribute to the band’s wild abandon of what a folk-rock band should sound like.
There’s a certain gravitas and power that the group cultivate with their music and it’s hard not to be swept away to their alternative world. Like plugging the medieval age into a Marshall amp, tracks such as Bells of Burford are mini-operas of oddity and eccentricity that would make a fitting soundtrack to a particularly debauched druid celebration.
A recent study of chart-topping hits showed that the reading age of lyrics is declining year-on-year – showing an alarming trend towards simplistic verses. The wordsmiths of Trembling Bells however could never be dismissed for their lack of intelligence, with the material more likely to be heard at a poetry recital than in the Top 40. At times the dense and complex wording can get in the way of the songs themselves, clunking against each other rather than letting the music breathe, but they can also complement the music with wonderful emotive imagery. What’s certainly clear is that the group are never going to take the easy road, and it’s this dedication to all things out of the ordinary that is at the beating heart of their songs.
The Sovereign Self certainly won’t appeal to all. It can flicker from enthralling to challenging and can sometimes overthink itself on occasions. It’s an album that has a wow factor though and stands out amongst 2015’s musical landscape – constantly pushing and prodding musical boundaries to see how far it can go. If you’re willing to follow them, you’ll find yourself on quite the musical adventure.
‘The Sovereign Self’ is out now on Tin Angel Records. The full track-listing for the album is as follows...