Trembling Bells are in the grand tradition of folk musicians who roam far and wide in their influences and subsequent styles. Perhaps best known for collaborations with Mike Heron (of The Incredible String Band) and Will Oldham they take elements of traditional music, sixties and seventies experimental folk, classical music, psychedelia and Velvet Underground fuzz blending it all together in their particular alchemical pot. Their last album, The Sovereign Self, was Stuart Maconie’s favourite album of 2015; Maconie of course is the curator of Radio 6’s Freak Zone and therein lies the rub. It’s all too easy to consign the ‘Bells to the “weird” zone, labelled as a tough listen but folk who remember (or are catching up on) albums such as Shirley Collins’ Anthems Of Eden, Kevin Ayers’ Whatevershebringswesing, Richard Thompson’s Henry The Human Fly or The Albion Band’s Rising Like The Sun will find much here to comfort them. Wide Majestic Aire doesn’t sound like any of these but the spirit of adventure and quest that informed works like these is very much alive here, the band unafraid to mix soaring guitar solos with pump organ sounds, unaccompanied voice and Baroque classical influences.
Wide Majestic Aire is a seven song mini album, its feet firmly anchored in two of the band’s (or more properly leader Alex Neilson’s) homelands, Leeds, his birthplace, and Carbeth in Scotland. The opening title song revisits Neilson’s formative years living close to the river Aire, reading Lorca and Blake as he walks the river banks, the dismal council estate he comes from replaced by Elysian Fields. The song flows like the river, a grand romantic sweep that takes him to the dreaming spires of Oxford, the buildings golden brown and ochre as Lavinia Blackwall’s voice commands attention, her mannered delivery nicely set against a rickety instrumental break. It’s an inspiring song and one of two here which most recall the pomp years of classic folk rock, Sandy Denny on Liege & Lief and solo recordings perhaps. The second song to do so is the closing Marble Arch. Again the band cleave to a rock sound, a solid rhythm section backing Blackwall’s majestic voice, guitarist Mike Hastings adding a fuzzed up guitar screech throughout.
No such firm footing on the capricious England Was Aghast, a song that veers from sonic rumblings with guitars and cymbals crashing to an electronic hornpipe of sorts as Blackwall declaims an England that is like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Show Me A Hole (And I’ll Crawl In It) musically recalls the Incredible string Band as a reedy organ dominates although there’s a decidedly medieval feel present. Lyrically obscure there are some fabulous images conjured. “There’s a line of beauty that starts at Roland’s wrist and ends at your mouth which I kissed and even Rodin showed an envy for that ruinous bliss” while later, up on Dionysian hills, “a butterfly dashed itself against a riot shield.” The organ pumps away until, towards the end, the band dash in in full prog folk glory, Celtic fuzz guitar and Keith Emerson keyboards to the fore. Swallows Of Carbeth is a simpler affair, a seemingly straightforward paean to the bucolic attractions of this off grid haven, the band nicely rolling and tumbling along initially. However it’s a lost love song, the delights soured by a leaving and the music darkens and becomes more frenzied, the fiddle blazing away. There’s more travelogue on the appealing I Love Bute, a lovely kenspeckled number that recalls the music that added so much to the original Whickerman. Finally Alex Neilson offers the unaccompanied voice song, The Day That Maya Deren Died, inspired, he says, from seeing The Watersons. As befits this unique writer however he gathers obscure references (Deyer was an avant garde filmmaker), place names (Kelvinside) and surrealistic images (a self immolated soldier) and weaves them into a song which kind of defies description but is also self referencing as it ends with the singer stating he’ll write a song about London’s Marble Arch, that song following and closing the disc.
Trembling Bells are out and about in April promoting this record. Dates are here.