When Alex Neilson was a teenager in Leeds, his musical comfort zone was in the city’s DIY scene – specifically its more improv-based, experimental noise corners. To the young man sporting homemade t-shirts of the free jazz pioneer Albert Ayler, the idea of folk music, with its austerity and cosy certainties, was not on the agenda. Until Neilson had an epiphany.“
There was a bunch of progressive weirdos doing skull splitting drone music that really helped forge/warp my tastes” Neilson told me, “Around a similar time I came across traditional British folk music and that became an alternative way of experiencing British culture- one that was romantic and elemental and connected to the underlying mystery of places that were very precious to me.”
For the last decade now, Neilson’s group Trembling Bells have been quietly reinventing what it means to be influenced by folk music, and as they release their sixth record ‘Dungeness’, it’s clear that Trembling Bells have now found themselves amidst a small blossoming resurgence in the aesthetics and ideas of the acid folk moment of the late 60s and early 70s.The acid folk moment was the point at which traditional British folk music, which had been thriving in the hundreds of folk clubs across Britain in the late 50s and 60s, rubbed up against the mid-60s burgeoning psychedelia (and in some cases jazz). This spawned some of the most incredible British music of its generation, in unique acts like Pentangle, the Incredible String Band, Mellow Candle, Trees and early Fairport Convention.
This strange, visionary music in turn created repercussions in culture for the next half decade; a bubbling of cinema and television plays where the eeriness of Britain was indelibly linked to the land and its people, films like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, Blood On Satan’s Claw and Penda’s Fen.
For sure, this moment has been mined as an influence over the last three decades, but never more so has it reappeared so potently in British culture or used to such varying effect before now.
“I would perceive common themes and practices within both forms of music and try to figure out ways to combine them” continued Neilson. “This often involved having an album of acapella folk songs playing in one room and some head harvesting free jazz blaring in another and moving between the rooms – probably while smoking a joint.”
“ Trembling Bells was an extension of this basic idea but one we chiselled into song form- something I’d never attempted before, and so still in keeping with the spirit of experimentation which has guided most of what I do creatively. It’s this spirit of musical inclusion- melding folk/ free jazz/ colliery brass/avant rock- that probably unites Trembling Bells with the folk revivalists of the late 60’s, rather than us using them as a direct influence.”
Trembling Bells, it turns out, were one step ahead than any of their safe, folk contemporaries in that they were able to use acid folk not as a series of musical tropes but as a lens through which to absorb other cultural reference points positioned miles away from Fairport Convention and arran sweaters – on ‘Dungeness’ alone, it’s Derek Jarman, it’s the expressionist panting Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, it’s that slightly less explored blurred line between Christian mysticism and the erotic.
It’s easy to see the influence of acid folk on Trembling Bells, but increasingly there’s an influence permeating into genres where you’d least expect such influences, genres without a hey-nonny-no in sight. In the press statement for his new record ‘Chemistry Lessons Volume One’, Chris Carter – the analogue synth pioneer once of Throbbing Gristle – explained that “over the last few years, I’ve been listening to old English folk music, almost like a guilty pleasure, and so some of the tracks on the album hark back to an almost ingrained DNA we have for those kind of melodies.”
Carter is onto something here – whilst initially it makes little sense to marry folk music with electronica, there’s a primitive, child-like element to folk music that has actually resurfaced repeatedly in electronic music. Look at the focus on unexamined English 1970s horror television and public information films mined by Ghost Box records artists like the Focus Group in the 00s, or even the haunted, spectral nostalgia of Boards of Canada’s seminal ‘Music Has The Right To Children’.
The latest in this line, as well as Carter, are Forktail – two artists (Si Davis and Boo Cook) for 2000 AD comic, who make doomy, ambient electronica intended a soundtrack for imaginary folk horror films, including uncanny snatches of spoken word and hallucinogenic sound collage.
On his widely acclaimed 2017 album ‘Peasant’, Newcastle songwriter Richard Dawson made a similar journey to Alex Neilson, in coming from the noisy avant-garde and moving into a folk framework – though Dawson himself prefers the term ‘community music’ to folk music. Dawson went from ear-splitting, fifteen minute guitar workouts about underage binge drinking to a kaleidoscopic safari through Middle Ages Britain – specifically the uncharted territory between 500AD and 700AD.
Like the acid folkists, Dawson found himself with thousands of years of history to play with, and rejecting the idea that there’s only one way to make a point about working class life in Britain – that is, via the kitchen sink.
Speaking to the Quietus last year, Dawson explained that “the early middle ages, the dark ages, is much more flexible and fluid to write about because there’s so much unknown about it…things reverted back to this almost tribal state of affairs, because the whole country was in great flux, and that seemed like a very interesting time. How did people manage to retain some honour, or look after their families when all around them the systems are in a great state of flux? There are some things in there that you don’t have to look too hard for, and, as you say, some of the things that are described in the songs are not too different from some of the things that occur today in a supposedly civilised society”.
It isn’t just Dawson who thinks there are political lessons from the acid folk moment – the same spirit is rupturing also on the left of the Labour party. The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher coined the term ‘acid communism’ – though a planned book on the idea was never completed, his view was that the utopianism and radicalism of late 60s British counterculture needed to be harnessed as a way of attempting a new political framework that could pull from the crass, corporate banality of late capitalist Britain. At Momentum’s ‘the World Transformed’ festival last year, a packed seminar was held to explore these ideas under the tag Acid Corbynism.
Is it a coincidence that we are seeing a revival in acid folk and folk horror during years in which Britain has been subsumed by a complex and fraught debate surrounding national identity? For many listeners, acid folk provided a framework through which to look at Britain and its past that wasn’t exclusionary, nationalistic or nostalgic. Instead, acid folk looked at Britain and saw a sinister, secret history of working class oppression, obscure occultists and a strangeness indelibly tied to the land and its people. It’s a way of looking at national identity and music that has something to say on British past that avoids the knackered Anglophilia typified by the grim spectacles of the Libertines’ boutique hotel ‘the Albion Rooms’.
Since Ben Wheatley’s 2013 ‘A Field In England’ – a psychedelic Civil War pastiche in the mould of ‘Witchfinder General’ – there’s been a steady increase in folk horror, which emerged from acid folk (the celebrated soundtrack to The Wicker Man, as just one example, came from acid folk act Magnet). Manchester held its first Folk Horror Festival earlier this year, and curiously, Sky Atlantic launched its flagship serial drama Britannia this year – tipped as Sky’s answer to Game Of Thrones – which is set in AD 43 and pulsating with acid folk and folk horror tropes, all witchiness, hallucinogenics and neo-folk aesthetics.
In literature, it’s Gordon Burn prize winner Ben Myers that most echoes Dawson’s ambition, in his surprise independent hit The Gallows Pole. The Gallows Pole – its title taken from a traditional folk ballad – is set in 18th century West Yorkshire, and uses the real-life figure of protection racketeer ‘King’ David Hartley to explore recurring themes of community and class.
You don’t have to squint too hard to see Hartley’s parallels in modern day Britain, as he exclaims “I’m a king that doesn’t need no fucking foreign tongue from across no foreign waters.” And in the novel, as now, great shifts are underway to unsettle the existing way of life – in this case, it’s the Industrial Revolution looming on the horizon.
This new activity in acid folk has also prompted a re-evaluation of underappreciated moments of folk past. A rare vocal condition forced Shirley Collins from singing in the mid 70s, and she would not record a note until 2016’s celebrated folk-noir masterpiece, ‘Lodestar’. More than any other living figure in folk, Collins saw revivals come and go – indeed, much of her work was crucial in informing the original acid folk moment – and this month, Strange Attractor are releasing her memoirs, All In The Downs.
Similarly, Lal and Mike Waterson’s 1972 flop ‘Bright Phoebus’ was reissued by Domino last year, and received rave broadsheet celebration as a landmark for the very same reasons that it was disparaged at the time; namely, its divergence from the Watersons’ previous traditional folk output, and its focus on the occult, ritualistic and eerie permeations in working class English life.
Is it a coincidence that we’re now seeing a revival of acid folk and folk horror during years in which Britain has been subsumed by a complex and fraught debate surrounding national identity? For many listeners, acid folk provided a framework through which to look at Britain and its past that wasn’t tainted by xenophobia or nostalgia.
Instead, acid folk looked at Britain and instead saw a sinister, secret history of working class oppression, obscure occultists and a strangeness indelibly tied to the mystery of the land and its people. It’s a way of looking at national identity in music that has something to say on British past, whilst avoiding the knackered Anglophilia typified by the grim spectacle of the Libertines’ boutique hotel ‘the Albion Rooms’.
There’s an argument that if as a nation we understand our folk history better, then we’re less likely to fall for misguided appropriations of our past. And indeed, there’s a latent need for the nourishment of folk myth and memory, especially when this need is so malnourished by late capitalism and globalisation.
Or, of course, there’s another equally potent explanation – it’s simply another sound to be mined that still feels untainted, and hasn’t quite been cribbed from so much as other areas. Either way, acid folk is stronger in our culture now than at any time since its emergence, and the results are varied and visionary.
Trembling Bells new album ‘Dungeness’ is out now.
Words: Fergal Kinney