I often get the impression with Alex Rex (whose leader is Leeds-born now Glasgow-based Alex Neilson) from his music that he is living on the margins of society, on the very edge. But you to talk to him and he’s the nicest of blokes, all calm and contemplative.
You might know Neilson from the excellent prog-psych Trembling Bells where he was the chief songwriter and occasional vocalist as well as the drummer. Sadly that band broke up a couple of years ago just as they seemed to be attracting a wider audience after 10 years at it. He’s also drummed with a panoply of musicians from the international underground; from Bonnie "Prince" Billy to Shirley Collins, Jandek and Current 93.
In his prolific ‘other’ career he’s released as Alex Rex three albums since 2017 with another on the way in July. All three, ‘Vermillion’, ‘Otterburn’ and ‘Andromeda’ were influenced to varying degreesby the untimely death of a younger brother. Indeed, ‘Otterburn’ is the name of the houseboat he died on.
His music is often dark but not really ethereal; the adjective that often goes with it in reviews, Alex Rex/Neilson is full on, in your face, rather than transitory. And that remains the case, as you can tell from some of the other song titles on the forthcoming album -
‘The Dark inside the Shadow’/’Funeral Bouquet’/’Black Peonies’/’Every Wall is a Wailing Wall’.
On the other hand while his brother’s passing distinctly had a bearing on the previous albums it wasnever cloyingly or even morbidly, his words celebrating life rather than wallowing in self-pity.
And he can be very funny. The final track on ‘Andromeda’, ‘Pass the mask’, (Ha! How apt, I never realised at the time, but there was no PPE then) is about the anxiety of childbearing by someone who has never borne a child. The opening verse is priceless… “O my son, how do I begin to tell you all the things I have done? /and if I did would you be disappointed? /But you get used to living with disappointment/Look at me and your mum.”
So how does this new single compare? According to the PR the album establishes another, more whimsical side to Alex Rex, while 'What's Shouted in The Dark (The Dark Shouts Back)' is a study in homicidal love from the viewpoint of the killer, which fits nicely his sometimes bizarre outlook on life.
For me Alex Rex helps fill a massive void because this sort of smart, wordy guitar-led punky prog rock hasn’t been heard since the days of Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung’ or ‘Thick as a Brick’, or Carter USM’s ‘1992 – the Love Album’, or ‘Worry Bomb’ and with a dash of Tom Jones’ ‘Delilah’ thrown in for good measure . The lyrics come at you like an express train…
“…The collapsed star of her naval’ (sic)…”Voice like bells in Wells Cathedral”…”and me like a hostage strapped to a table”.
“…But time happens at you/In the tyranny of the mirror/in the silence at the centre of the mind/in the doggy bag of your liver/but how long must you hate yourself because you cannot not forgive her?”
“The groom swallows poison for his bride”…”then beckons her to bed on the guillotine”.
He even manages to mimic Nick Lowe and Hazel O’Connor in the same line, “I love the sound of breaking dreams”.
Then the track is played out by a lengthy guitar solo by frequent collaborator Rory Haye, while the short, snatched female/victim vocal of the title line may come courtesy of the incomparable Lavinia Blackwall, who has reunited with Neilson on the album for the first time since the demise of Trembling Bells.
I repeat an observation I made when I reviewed a live show he played in Manchester in early February last year, which I just realised is the last show I saw in this country. There is a growing consensus amongst critics that Neilson is fast becoming one of the leading writers in the UK, with some comparing him to the likes of Dylan, Cave, Cohen and Watts. Which sounds like the back four from a relegation-threatened League 2 team.
But this for this Premier League quality writer, lyricist and drummer and his dark materials, the only way is up.
*** We repeat the warning message about the video that it could trigger seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy***
'What's Shouted In the Dark (The Dark Shouts Back)' is out now and ‘Paradise’ will follow on July 30th via Neolithic Recordings.