Words by Grey Malkin
Alex Rex is the vehicle for the restless muse of Alex Neilson, former Trembling Bells band leader and drummer with Josephine Foster, Jandek, Current 93 and myriad others in the psych folk and experimental spheres. With ‘Andromeda’, his third solo release, Neilson charts what he describes as ‘two years spent in therapy, the gym and on Tinder’. This reflects the different shades and hues inherent on the album, from pitch black funereal swing to hopeful shards of redemptive light, with all the reference points in between. It is a brutally authentic album which wears its wounds openly and proudly, and is all the more evocative and immersive for this. They don’t make albums much like this anymore; all the more reason to treasure ‘Andromeda’ and its naked truths.
The album opens gently with ‘Song of Self Doubt’ and the voice of folk legend Shirley Collins, her recognisable lilt and enunciation exclaiming an ominous text filled with cruel nature, longing and loss. Bird song mingles with a metallic drone, lending a further sense of unease, a hypnagogic feel of unreality. It is an entirely apt beginning for an album that so perfectly merges melancholy, disturbance and beauty. ‘Handful of Hair’ by contrast is a wheeling organ based scream into the void, Neilson’s voice evoking both Leonard Cohen and Bonnie Prince Billy (with whom he has also worked extensively). A doomed country tinged lament; this both chills and excites. ‘I Am Happy’ treads a similar coffin road, all Bad Seeds blood specked guitar, sea shanty vocals and thunderous drums; it is also breathtakingly good. Neilson’s sense of melody is the common thread that runs through these songs, as wild and tormented as they get, these are consistently strong and memorable tracks that replay in the listener’s mind long after the album is over.
‘Funeral Music For Alex Rex’ is a case in point; shimmering Hammond organ and celestial piano frames a proclaimed spoken word verse, the song riffing off of equal parts Purcell’s ‘Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary’ and Charles Wesley’s hymnal ‘Idumea’. It is essentially Neilson reading his own liturgy. ‘Oblivion’ follows, a scratchy and hushed folk prayer with additional vocals by Georgia Seddon (Mike Heron/The Incredible String Band), by turns devotional and heartbroken with a haunted slide guitar and a tumbling rhythm that reminds this listener of the barren Gothic blues of Crime and the City Solution. Next ‘Coward’s Song’ (recently covered by Bonnie Prince Billy himself) is Shakespeare meets Nashville via the gutter, and is all the more splendid for it. Aching, self-aware and willingly vulnerable, there is an abundance of soul on ‘Andromeda’; Neilson lays himself bare in all his naked honesty and fragility.
‘Rottweilers’ explodes into being, waves of fuzzed, crunching guitar and choirs of harmonised vocals surround Neilson’s wounded but defiant voice to transform the song from broken into something almost celebratory. This album bleeds raw emotion. ‘Alibi Blues’ creeps into a spectral delta shuffle of the type The Gun Club extolled, the chorus becoming a hymn of ‘adore me, ignore me…’. ‘whilst album highlight ‘Haunted House’ is a skeletal and twitchy country howl, piano notes picking out a lonesome and tear soaked path through the dust and decay of a relationship long lost to time. Georgia Seddon again provides sensitive and empathic accompaniment, as do fellow travellers Steve Jackson and Audrey Bizouerne (Rev Magnetic/ Bill Wells). Sometimes you just know on hearing a new song that it is already a ‘classic’ and will be from hereon in, whether it be in 5 years or 20 year’s time; this is one of them.
Next, ‘The Uses of Trauma’s glacial guitar and shivering, wintry mood is bewitching, its spell cast by Neilson and Seddon’s call and response vocals and the bruised romanticism that it wears defiantly and proudly up its bruised, bare soul. ‘I’m Not Hurting No More’ is a Birthday Party stomp, Neilson’s frantic spoken word painting pictures and imagery with ease as the stabbing guitars and noise growls gleefully and steadily around him like an apocalyptic beat poetry session. Finally, ‘Pass the Mask’ closes the album with a genuinely beautiful country ballad, a hairs standing on end moment that is as lovely as it is heartfelt and shattered. To a repeated round of ‘nothing can heal you or destroy you better than time’, this exceptional album comes to a close.
‘Andromeda’ then is a swirling dark galaxy its own, though that which charts an internal universe. Challenging, emotive, gorgeous and staggeringly human, this is an album to carry with you into your own dark nights and hushed early mornings. Essential.
Andromeda was released February 7, 2020 on Tin Angel Records
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