Trembling Bells have never been concerned with keeping with the times. Instead of angsty modern themes, they deal with gigantic archetypal forms like love and death, their clattering folk rock writ large in primary colours of bold, crashing chord progressions and songs studded with references to mainstream poets like Dylan Thomas.
They’re anachronistic, but not in a shallow way. Far from the psychedelic folk revivalists they’re often portrayed as, they’re much more redolent of a classicist impulse informed by lead songwriter Alex Neilson’s love for Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, which has in the past made for some potently emotive, sky-punchingly romantic music. Their last album, 2015’s The Sovereign Self made gestures toward more conventionally progadelic moves and scaled back on the impassioned folk tonalities, and that approach still holds some sway over Dungeness. However, while they perhaps aren’t producing skyscraping bangers in the vein of ‘Goathland’ and ‘Willows of Carbeth’ at the rate they once were, this album claws back much of the wonkiness that initially made them so unique.
One aspect of this wonkiness is the sonics – Trembling Bells make some stylistic turns here that most fans wouldn’t have predicted. ‘Death Knocked At My Door’ is discordant freakbeat, with angular, chopping guitar that makes one think of Beefheart or even The Ex, topped off with a bizarre samba breakdown. Then there’s ‘The Prophet’, the band’s first, and rather successful, foray into caveman stoner doom, along with the circular riffs of ‘Devil In Dungeness’, which might as well have been cribbed from Middle Eastern-styled rock group The Devil’s Anvil, as well as the rhythmically eccentric ‘This Is How The World Will End’ which careers off into a serene country-and-western bridge. The band have often been compared to Fairport Convention – a limited appraisal given their more Celtic-sounding cadences and chaotic rhythms, which are miles away from Fairport’s taught agrarian funk – but on the fiddle-led hoedown closing ‘Christ’s Entry Into Govan’, those critics might finally have found some justification.
Aside from sonics, the almost obsessive way in which the lyrical themes are fleshed out is another way in which this album is delightfully skewed. These themes in themselves are not exactly unexplored: the wretchedness of life is contrasted with the grandeur of the mind, the sacred with the profane. Yet they’re rendered in a dense, image-laden style, with wombs and Jesus Christ constant companions, and they’re shot through with hefty doses of self-loathing. This is ushered in by Neilson and vocalist Lavinia Blackwall on opener ‘Big Nothing’; riding ecstatic, full-throated harmonies, ambivalent assertions like ‘I’m the best version of myself that it’s possible to be / Now I’m living the only life that’s available to me” seem to encapsulate the tenor of the album, pitched somewhere between triumph and despair. Similarly, in the irresistible fisherman singalong ‘My Father Was A Collapsing Star”, Neilson is a “king in a collapsing castle” who scratched his way “out of the womb-door / To the sound of canned laughter”, giving a sense of drunken revelry at life’s disappointments. This carnivalesque attitude to life’s absurdity is nowhere to be found in ‘Knockin’ On The Coffin’, though; with the grinning face of death constantly around the corner, Blackwall intones lines about “Howling and crawling on all fours in the night” which leave you thinking of Blake’s ‘Nebuchadnezzar’.
Life is a macabre joke in the world painted by Dungeness. ‘Christ’s Entry Into Govan’ envisions ‘a philosopher of nothing in particular’, regarding ‘The whole human charade as a strip tease down to the skeleton.’ Even the song’s swelling Celtic cadences can’t hide the despondency. But while life is a sham, refuge is to be sought in the mind – in ‘…Govan’ it’s a churchyard, in ‘Death Knocked…’ it’s a shoelace to be followed – and sex. The lurid ‘I’m Coming’, meanwhile, revels in debauchery, opening with a scene that’s either an attempted suicide or a particularly violent attempt at erotic auto-asphyxiation. The meaning is muddied even more by the refrain “Lord, I’m coming”, veering close to the weird sexual/spiritual conflations you get in medieval Christian mysticism.
From one kind of culmination to another: closer ‘Rebecca, Dressed As A Waterfall’ is perhaps the most startling moment on the album. Drawing lines between two peripheral but ubiquitous features of Trembling Bells’ sonic makeup – early music and the British freak scene, in which Neilson is an active player, and which includes the likes of Vibracathedral Orchestra and Richard Youngs. The song is a feverish dream vision, beginning once again in a “womb-chamber”. Powered by recorder, free drumming and what sounds like a hurdy gurdy, it rises to an ecstatic meltdown that can be compared to Flower-Corsano Duo jamming out with David Munrow’s Early Music Consort: triumphant, skyscraping medieval drone psych. With the titular character introducing herself as “the ever-ripening fruit / You’re ever devouring me”, there’s a kind of sexy mysticism at play. Placed at the end of the album, it’s an invitation away from the self-loathing on Dungeness, a moment of transcendence above the muck.