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Trembling Bells / Baby Copperhead / T.E. Yates

Friday, 6 April 2018 - 8:00pm
Trembling Bells
Sophocles. Dennis Potter. The painter El Greco. Not the usual collection of influences that go towards shaping an album, but then Trembling Bells are not your usual sort of band. Oh, there’s a break-up with a girl in there somewhere, too, of course. That’s more the typical sort of thing, isn’t it? But The Sovereign Self is a remarkable work from remarkable musicians – one of Britain’s most distinctive and exciting groups.
The Sovereign Self – named after a line from Dennis Potter, the late television auteur – is the fifth album by Trembling Bells, their first since 2012’s The Marble Downs, a collaboration with Will Oldham. It is a driving, dramatic and at times hallucinatory work, filled with a great sense of tension and release; a witches’ brew, a psychedelic stew mixing up the range of the band’s musical interests – everything from ramshackled ballads to ancient May Day chants, swaggering acid rock to swirling prog epics.
“Some songs are a little challenging” says lead vocalist Lavinia Blackwall, “Bringing Alasdair C Mitchell into the band means we have the interplay of two guitar parts. Musically, this album has been a lot more collaborative and democratic and as a result a lot of our other influences have come through – psychedelia, early-70s prog and rock. It’s heavier and darker. I find it physically and emotionally draining to sing these songs, because they are quite intense you have to put so much into them.”
As always, there is a strong sense of place in songs: Glasgow, Padstow; East London, the Great Western Road; the A61 and A82 – you could plot the songs of Trembling Bells on a chart; you could drive around in them. They are a band poised between mappa mundi and SatNav.
Trembling Bells formed in 2008, born from Glasgow’s close-knit scene, united by shared tastes, passions and imagination. “We all like music on a forensic level,” says Neilson. “We’re all obsessive, pedantic, maladjusted, unemployable nerds.”
It is tempting to regard them as a band out of time, five tempunauts who would rather be hanging out in the studio of William Morris, or Weimar-era Berlin, or quaffing cider in Merrie England than in the sometimes tawdry, often dull world of social networking and digital downloads. They seem profoundly nostalgic, yearning for the past like a child for its mother. Is that fair comment? “Possibly,” says Neilson. “I’m a little bit cautious about that because we get called folk-rock quite a lot. But no, I don’t really relate to much of the modern world. I feel that there’s a lot to learn from 30,000 years of civilisation.”
That range of cultural and counter-cultural interest is apparent from the front cover of The Sovereign Self – a series of twenty portraits painted by Lavinia Blackwall: an eclectic gallery of genius from Emily Dickinson to Aeschylus; Lou Reed to Ovid.
Another key influence, psych-folk pioneers the Incredible String Band, has loomed large in the lives of Trembling Bells in recent years. They have toured with ISB co-founder Mike Heron, performing tracks from his songbook.
Having released five cracking LPs in six years, in addition to a number of side-projects, Trembling Bells show no signs of slowing down. Already, work is being done on solo records from three members, and there are plans for an album of reworked traditional folk songs with vocals from comedian Stewart Lee. This is quite simply a group of people with music pouring out of them.
“We’re very ambitious creatively,” says Neilson. “We’re always pushing ourselves deeper and deeper into the mystery."
The Serpent and the Sparrow, the upcoming album from Baby Copperhead, is an experimental landscape from a dystopian future featuring new songs arranged for string trio, banjo, acoustic guitar and electronics. Traditional modal tunings from Southern Appalachia and sampled field recordings encounter stark expanses of synthesized sounds amidst contemporary classical arrangements for violin viola, and cello, alternately lush and spare. Building on his “otherworldly” folk roots, Brooklyn-based Ben Lee (a.k.a. Baby Copperhead) extends his explorations of a broken, dissonant sort of Americana, one in which repressed elements from our cultural past—the banjo’s African origins, polyphonic borrowings from 16th century European sacred music—return amidst the ones and zeros of digital metering, sonic figures sculpted by programmable machines, and distant voices broadcast as radio waves over discarded technological channels.
There is an elegiac beauty in Baby Copperhead’s music — a reverent memory of indigenous archetypes of the Southwest, of bird songs serendipitously synched to manmade tempos and tunings native to Lee’s teenage home in North Carolina; yet one can also hear in it the struggle against the tide of our current ecological crises and our unyielding political cynicism.
Most musicians boast of exploding onto their local scene in a glittering blaze of media hype and spontaneous applause. T.E. Yates, however, snuck in through an open window.
His name was not on the top line of event posters but rather a discreet artist signature in the bottom corner; his first gig flyers and album covers were ones he designed for other bands not himself. He’s performed in front of huge crowds but always as a hired hand or supporting player, a multi-instrumentalist in the shadows – mandolin, banjo, harmonica, even musical saw – you may have heard him on the tracks of other artists without even knowing it.
But now T.E. Yates has stepped out of the shadows, taking centre-stage with a formidable backing band (both onstage and on record) comprising members of Victorian Dad, The Bedlam Six, Ottersgear, Gorilla Riot and Honeyfeet. Even when performing solo the man doesn’t travel light, his weird and wonderful drawings regularly making an appearance between songs, baffling and delighting audiences in equal measures.
His debut EP “Possessed” was released on Debt Records in 2013. His first full LP, entitled “Silver Coins And White Feathers” and produced by Biff Roxby, is due out on 26th May 2017. There's a celebratory launch event taking place at Gullivers in Manchester the preceeding evening.
TREMBLING BELLS return to The Continental with special guests BABY COPPERHEAD and T.E YATES on Friday 6th April 2018. Doors at 8pm. 
Tickets are £10 advance / £12 on the door. Available online now from SEE Tickets, WeGotTickets & Skiddle. 
In person from The Continental (01772 499 425) & Action Records (01772 884 772)