When Trembling Bells’ Alex Neilson makes music, he thinks of it in less certifiable terms than structure, key or tempo. On “Big Nothing”, the opening track to Trembling Bells’ seventh album Dungeness, he wanted the chords “to sound gigantic and degraded, like a building collapsing in slow motion. Or a rusted structure in the middle of the sea”. And remarkably it does.
With its open-hearted sound and jarring self-deception “Big Nothing” sets up many of the key themes on Dungeness. Named after a headland on the south coast of England, which Alex visited for the first time in 2015 along with other band members – bassist Simon Shaw, guitarists Alasdair C Mitchell and Mike Hastings, and vocalist/ organist Lavinia Blackwall – the place had a polarising affect. “They hated it for the same reasons that I was thrilled by it” says Alex. “We drove for a long time along the East Sussex coast road to get there. All the while the landscape seemed to be getting more parched and flat. It felt like if you looked out of the van window then the land wouldn’t actually be there anymore. Just a Void. When we arrived at Dungeness it felt like the end of the earth”.
Many of the tracks on Dungeness feel like the end of the earth too, their folk rock sensibility acquiring a sweeping, apocalyptic grandness – both in sound and lyrics. Though it hearkens back to the ‘70s psychedelic heyday of Fairport Convention and Trees, it’s also, as comedian Stewart Lee puts it in his sleeve notes, “heroically now”. Indeed, it’s hard not to hear the lyrics of album highlight “I’m Coming” – when Lavinia sings, “There’s a price to be paid for these abuses of power” – without connecting it to what’s happening in the world right now.
The influences that seeped into Dungeness are perhaps not what you’d expect. “I’ve never studied music for fear it would kill my interest, or at least railroad my sense of what was creatively possible” says Alex, which perhaps explains the beautifully elusive metaphors he uses when describing his own music. “Instead, my musical activity has always been nourished by an interest in other things” “Christ’s Entry Into Govan” was inspired by Flemish Expressionist James Ensor’s painting Christ’s Entry Into Brussels. “My Father Was A Collapsing Star” takes lyrical cues from Ted Hughes and W.B Yeats, while “Knocking On The Coffin” was influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
Dungeness also finds the band at their most musically accomplished. “Knockin’ On The Coffin”, like most of the songs on the album, was recorded in one take, with Lavinia singing live with the band. It is a song, says Alex, “that sparks the two jump leads of my mind; self-destruction and desire”. But you don’t need to know the details of Alex’s past or present to appreciate Dungeness. His hopes for what listeners gain from the album are modest: “that it appeals to their sense of human frailty as much as their pelvis”. The apocalypse has never sounded this good.