Psych/prog band Trembling Bells broke up at the back end of last year after 10 years, six albums and an EP, perhaps ironically as they had started to make an impact on the more mainstream music mind, especially with their last album, Dungeness, which received extensive radio airplay.
Individual band members, there were five of them, are going their own way or persevering with other bands, including lead vocalist Lavinia Blackwall, who has embarked on a solo career, styling herself as BlackwAll and Mike Hastings and Simon Shaw together in Youth of America.
Now GIITTV is pleased to confirm that Trembling Bells’ founder and principal songwriter, the percussionist and vocalist Alex Neilson, will release a solo album, Otterburn on March 29th, through Tin Angel Records. His debut solo album, Vermillion, was released in 2017 under the name Alex Rex, as is the new one.
A tour will commence at the beginning of April, in Scotland, and throughout much of England (see below for dates).
Neilson is no stranger to experimentation, or improvisation, and has worked with a plethora of artists, including the Americans Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) and the elusive Texan Jandek (Sterling Smith).
Otterburn is being described as a very personal record for Neilson, which I can understand having witnessed his solo a cappella performance of the song ‘Smoke & Memory’, at a Trembling Bells show in Leeds last April. In the introduction, he dedicated it to a younger brother, Alastair, without going into great detail about why.
Little did the audience know at the time that he was approaching the first anniversary of Alastair’s sudden and unexpected death in his sleep on a canal boat in Leeds.
This traumatic event shaped the album. ‘Otterburn’ the title track is an elegy to Alastair’s canal boat. There is a great deal of despair in the record as one might expect but along with it the sort of black humour that goes with Alex Neilson, and Trembling Bells for that matter. I recall him introducing the band in his home city show and explaining that while now based in Glasgow he originated from what he calls “Anal Bleeds”.
And there was always darkness surrounding Trembling Bells. Their songs often embraced death, religious conflict, killing, tombs, coffins and other such assorted imagery.
At one stage on the new album he sings, “The clouds disperse / Without priority or care / He’s gone they seem to say / But knock once if you’re still there”, which channels the ‘Dungeness’ track, ‘Knockin’ On The Coffin’.
There are other kinds of sorrow present, too, interspersed with shameless humour. The seemingly ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ derivative ‘Amy, May I?’ is a genre-bending paean to masochistic love, featuring Belle and Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson on guitar, in which Neilson gasps, “You came on like a nervous reaction / My teeth get hard and my dick starts chattering…”.
‘Master’ is a slow jokey funereal waltz described aptly as the lyrical equivalent of a game of musical chairs on the Titanic, which is brought back to earth by the poignant ‘Brother’ which follows it.
Video premiere, ‘Master’:
Alex Neilson says, “Master…was written as a letter from an exiled submissive to his darling dom. The language is that of cruelty, emotional sleight-of-hand, fetishised regret and haunted accusation. I wanted it to sound like the aural equivalent of a Victorian medical device. The video is presented as a series of postcards from an unspecified love triangle. The relationships unknown and melancholy. It is set in the past and future simultaneously – a future that is already ruined.”
As for ‘Dildos’ (which cleverly references ‘Dungeness’) I’ll leave that to your imagination. The album closes as it should, though, with what could be a touching Shakespearean soliloquy in ‘Smoke and Memory’.
The best way I can describe this album on a first hearing is the funeral you’re dreading but which is turned into a carnival of fun-filled remembrance by the vicar or priest who knows just how to press the right buttons.
Incidentally, don’t think that the Trembling Bells crowd has gone away entirely. Otterburn reunites Neilson with a couple of former band mates, Lavinia Blackwall of course, who turns up as charmingly as ever on the very first track and more powerfully later on ‘Always Already’, and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Mike Hastings.
Other musicians featured on the album are: Rory Haye; Stevie Jackson; Dave McGowan; Dave Addison; Alasdair Roberts; Alex South; Caroline Hussey; Georgia Seddon; and Calum Calderwood.
02/04 Glasgow – Blue Arrow
03/04 Edinburgh – Sneaky Pete’s
06/04 Bristol – The Cube
07/04 Bath – The Bell
08/04 Leicester – The Musician
09/04 Brighton – The Rose Hill
10/04 London – SET
11/04 Birmingham – Hare & Hounds
13/04 Todmorden – Golden Lion
14/04 Sheffield – Bishop’s House