All these years down the line and it’s fair to say that the lad’s come a long way. He’s filled out a bit and the innocence has long since left those eyes, but that passion for music burns on undiminished. Alex has achieved great acclaim and travelled worldwide with his group Trembling Bells and as a drummer for hire to some of the finest musical artists of our times. While his influences are wide-ranging and myriad, his early musical touchstones have remained intact; something of the spirit of them all is evident on this, his first solo album, Vermillion.
Solo, sure: the vision is highly personal, undiluted Neilson, although he’s called upon the huge musical talents of musicians Lavinia Blackwall, Mike Hastings and Rory Haye (and engineer Sam Smith at Green Door Studios) to bring it all to four-dimensional life. Vermillion is marked throughout by the distinctive Neilson wit, with which those who know the man will surely be familiar; he proves himself a daring lyricist throughout, walking a tightrope between the kaleidoscopic surrealism of Apollinaire and, closer to home, the visionary luminosity of Peter Redgrove. Musically, Vermillion displays a clear love of melody, skronky blats and classic song structure, along with a fearless willingness to toy with those forms and range freely across styles.
Take, for instance, the opener “The Screaming Cathedral”, a song which stands in similar relation to Renaissance polyphony as the work of Francis Bacon does to Velázquez. Rather different musically is the darkly epic “Song for Dora”, which must be about as close to a swampy voodoo stomp as any Yorkshireman is likely to get. Different again is “The Perpetually Replenished Cup”; characterised by classical allusions, it might be the work of some addled latter-day hedge schoolmaster, were it not characterised by such a particularly southern English, Copper Family-esque hymnodic feel. By contrast, “Please God Make Me Good (But Not Yet)” could be a particularly skewed outtake from Leonard Cohen’s unlistenable masterpiece Death of a Ladies’ Man, while “Postcard From a Dream” swaggers out snarling and drawling in Alex’s aforementioned mid-sixties Sunday best.
Alex Rex: it takes a certain temerity for an artist to adopt such a regal appellation! Of course, it’s not without its precedents, but one must have a great deal of self-belief to pull it off – and that’s what Vermillion manages, at last, to do. The artist himself tells me that a reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses informed some of the record’s lyrical content. Perhaps it’s obvious to state a belief that artists often turn to that great work when preoccupied with notions of transformation, change and growth – that certainly seems to be the case here, ancient precedents evoked for the development of the artist’s psychic and emotional condition in the production of a similarly shape-shifting piece of work. The final product, though mercurial, is a coherent distillation of the artist’s various influences, preoccupations and concerns – a nine-song window into a complex and inquisitive musical mind. Alasdair Roberts