In the late 1960s a new type of band appeared on the British pop music scene that combined elements of traditional British Isle folk music with modern instruments and psychedelic rock. Groups like Fairport Convention and Renaissance, and individuals like Bert Jansch were famous for their wonderful instrumental work and breath taking vocal harmonies. While incarnations of each of the two bands are still active today and keeping that sound alive, the current crop of musicians interested in the same field are prone to tinkering with the old formula.
Judging by their debut album, Carbeth released on Honest Jon's Records, the four person band Trembling Bells have a similar affection for the music as their predecessors. Yet instead of being merely content to emulate them, they've also added some distinctive flavouring of their own into the mix. While some elements of their sound (distinctive vocals, acoustic instruments, and a passion for early music styling) are common to both generations of folk groups, Trembling Bells has spread their net somewhat further afield than Great Britain.
Your first indication that this isn't going to be quite like anything else you've heard comes right from the opening track on the disc, "I Listed All Of The Velvet Lessons". Although there's the expected soaring soprano female lead vocal singing what sounds like a tune written when central heating meant a fire pit in the middle of the room, the horn that sounds like it sprang from a parade through the streets of New Orleans is something new. On top of that, throughout the disc there are moments of discordance verging on cacophony which prevents the music from becoming overly precious and introduces an element of darkness absent from those earlier bands.
The core of Trembling Bells are percussionist/drummer Alex Neilson, the above mentioned female soprano, Lavinia Blackwall, also handles the keyboard chores, Ben Reynolds plays guitar, harmonica, and chips in on vocals, and Simon Shaw is on bass. The sound on Carbeth is rounded out with the inclusion of trombonist George Murray and viola player Aby Vuillamy. While the former helps push the band into uncharted territory for a traditional folk group, the latter keeps them firmly rooted in the early music sound expected of them. If you think of them as the two extremes of the band's sound, you begin to get an idea of just how different they're from what's come before.
For although the titles of their songs sound appropriately medieval; "I Took To You (Like Christ To Wood)", "Willows Of Carbeth", and "Garlands Of Stars", the majority of them aren't about to inspire anybody to start Morris dancing on the village green. In fact, most of them have a definite split personality when it comes to the music. This is especially noticeable on those songs where Blackwall takes the lead vocals as her beautiful soprano is a sharp contrast to the music playing behind her. Whether it's the keyboards swirling dervish like or the trombone playing blues tinged jazz, her voice is made to stand out so much it's purity plays against itself to the point where it almost jars against the ear. Like a sharpened knife her voice cuts and wounds and is one of the clearest indications that Trembling Bells aren't sentimental in their approach to traditional music.
While some might find this approach disconcerting when they compare it to what they're used to, it seems to be a far more honest approach to the music than the overly romantic, and rather cloying sounds, of others. There was nothing easy about life during Medieval times when, for the majority, it was a struggle merely to survive. If you didn't die of disease or starvation, the back breaking work of merely staying alive would ensure you didn't live past forty. Trembling Bells may not sing songs about pestilence and famine, but the qualities they've imbued their music with dispels any notions of this era being some sort of rustic paradise.
Lest I've given you the impression that Trembling Bells are simply a discordant bunch of noisemakers, let me reassure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Their songs are all marvellously crafted and superbly played pieces of music performed by extremely talented individuals. It takes an incredible amount of talent and skill to push music to the very edge of dissonance without ever falling over into discordance and they show a fine ear and a deft touch by never allowing that to happen. Like the best avant-garde jazz they might give the impression of chaos, but the reality is they always know exactly what they're doing.
Trembling Bells may have deconstructed the traditional folk music genre, but that doesn't mean they are without affection for it. In fact, I think their efforts to breath new life into this style of music, their desire to give it a more authentic feel, shows the depth of their appreciation. Certainly the music on Carbeth is not easy to listen to, and requires a certain amount of effort on the part of the listener, but the result is something far more rewarding than anything previously attempted in this field. If you come to this album simply hoping to hear a rehashing of what's been done before you will be disappointed. However if you're willing to listen carefully and allow the music to work its magic on you – you'll be amazed by what they have to offer.