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Clare Dodd is captivated by Tembling Bells' intoxicating blend of folk, psychedelia and prog rock

Trembling Bells

The Cellar, Oxford

Trembling Bells are creating some of the most enthralling music in Britain today.

“They are so wild, they are so British, they are so exciting,” says Stuart Maconie of BBC Radio 6. Blending folk, psychedelia, prog rock and a lot more besides, the band exudes mysticism, torturous despair and a deep love of the land they inhabit.

To even try and relive the experience of a Trembling Bells gig you have to let go of the idea that you know up from down and, instead, let yourself tumble freely down the dark, twisting rabbit hole that is their universe.

When the band came to Oxford last August the crowd did exactly that, tripping out as the five-piece ripped through their album, The Sovereign Self. Returning to The Cellar this April the Bells offered an equally mind-altering performance, though a few in the audience refused to be shaken from their Sunday-night temperance.

No matter. Sunday night was a joy.

Opening with a track from their latest EP, Wide Majestic Aire, the Bells eased us in with a stripped-back folk tune that had the lightest ripple of 70s rock running through. Reflecting the more gentle sound of this latest release, it formed a delicate counterpart to the frenzied songs of The Sovereign Self.

Two songs in, heart of the band, Alex Nielson, piped up. Leeds-born and now a Glasgow resident, Nielson confessed that, although he has travelled to Brazil, Israel and beyond, Oxford remains his “favourite town in this whole crappy world”.

An easy crowd-pleaser perhaps, but in Nielson’s case an honest declaration, proven by how often Oxford was referenced in the Bells’ songs. ‘Bells of Burford’ was a blistering acid-folk explosion, while ‘Bells of Oxford’ provided a captivating interlude as Nielson and signer and keyboardist, Lavinia Blackwall sang unaccompanied of a lovers’ midnight walk.

Nielson might be the heart of the band, but Lavinia’s voice is critical to the Bells’ sound. Strong yet ethereal, she sailed her words softly along the ‘Wide Majestic Aire’ one moment and sent them soaring, ‘Just As The Rainbow’, the next.

It’s hard to talk standout songs. With every one Nielson stood up and, with his characteristic jazz-inspired style of drumming, gave everything he had, mentally and physically, leaving him drained by the end of each. But ‘The Singing Blood’ was a cut above.

Sounding out a raw nerve, Nielson sang of suicidal depression, resigning to the line, “your heart was the house, my anxieties sheltered in” before tortuously repeating “and the bullet in your hand”: heartfelt and wrenching.

With their deep love of Oxford the Bells will doubtless return soon: all I can say is, just be sure you’re there when they do.

Clare Dodd