The Sovereign Self

Trembling Bells

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The Sovereign Self Review

by Timothy Monger

Glaswegian eclectics Trembling Bells offer up their freewheeling fifth LP, The Sovereign Self, an eight-song odyssey named after a line by revered British television writer Dennis Potter. That they cite influences like Potter, Greek tragedies, the painter El Greco, and socialist activist William Morris, reveals just how unlike any of their indie rock contemporaries they really are. In their six years together, they've never made any bones about their obscure historical leanings, but neither do they attempt to wholly re-create music of a certain era. Led by band mastermind and drummer/singer Alex Neilson, they trip deeply through veins of psychedelic pop, prog, British folk, early music, and even country. Following 2012's Marble Downs, their inspired collaboration with Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Neilson and singer/keyboardist Lavinia Blackwall formed the Crying Lion, a side project with a cappella group Muldoon's Picnic, who released a beautiful collection of original choral songs in 2014. Their mix of madrigal, Gregorian chant, and American Sacred Harp singing represented yet another facet of Neilson's far-flung interests, consequently affecting Trembling Bells, whose layers seem to deepen with each release. The Sovereign Self opens with the epic eight-minute "'Tween the Womb and the Tomb," an invigorating psych romp that showcases the interplay between guitarists Mike Hastings and new recruit Alasdair C. Mitchell, whose loosely contained fire recalls Fairport's Thompson/Nicol heyday. There are cerebral folk-pop meanderings like the lovely "Sweet Death Polka" and "The Singing Blood," as well as pastoral '60s rockers like "Killing Time in London Fields," which serves as yet another vehicle for Blackwell's powerhouse vocals. They even take a crack at the famed "Padstow May Day Song" under the title "O, Where Is Saint George?" An extension of their ever-evolving canon, The Sovereign Self is possibly Trembling Bells' most colorful journey yet, with a wayfaring rock & roll spirit and a madcap zeal that keep it sounding fresh even when the band devolves into an extended jam around David Bowie's "The Width of a Circle" on album-closer "I Is Someone Else." Trembling Bells may not be for everyone, but they are easily one of the U.K.'s most fascinating acts.

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