Blue Bell Knoll - 1988

Blue Bell Knoll Blue Bell Knoll
Athol-Brose
Carolyn's Fingers
For Phoebe Still A Baby
The Itchy Glowbo Blow
Cico Buff
Suckling The Mender
Spooning Good Singing Gum
A Kissed Out Red Floatboat
Ella Megalast Burls Forever

After a very busy period the Cocteau Twins took some time off to rethink their ideas before releasing their next album. Thus it should come as no surprise that the band on Blue Bell Knoll sound very differently from anything else they had done before.

If anything the album features ten mostly very busy songs. None of their works on any album can usually be called 'simple', but on this album complexity is the standard rather than the exception. In most songs one can hear various melodic lines woven together into a symphony of sound, and on top of that the rhythms are hard to grasp. The entire impression is one of something crafted together almost too well. It is as though one can feel how hard the Twins were trying to get all the chords in their correct places, and although they succeeded more often than not, this on the other hand means the album lacks a bit of the spontaneity which made Head Over Heels or Treasure so appealing.

It should be clear that on Blue Bell Knoll the Cocteau Twins entered a new phase of their career. The group members are known to have been of the opinion that Blue Bell Knoll was their first 'real album'. Although many Cocteau Twins fans would strongly disagree to this it gives a clear indication that the Twins were bound to go further down the roads they had only just begun to explore on this album, and the future was to show that this would lead to some fantastic results. Meanwhile most of these ten songs stand out as solid proof that the Cocteau Twins could deliver great quality despite radical changes in their musical style.

Blue Bell Knoll

New album, new sound. This is the only time the Cocteau Twins kicked off an album with a title track. Does this indicate they were particularly pleased with this song? They should be, because Blue Bell Knoll is a work of art, one of the most creative efforts of their career.

The track is clearly built up from two different parts. The first part has the vocals, the second part is instrumental. The connection between the two is quite unusual: a marvellous little loop on a harpsichord is being played throughout, yielding a subtle and easily recognizable introduction as well.

The vocal parts, well, they are simply beautiful. A gorgeous melody, some additional keyboards, everything is in perfect harmony, leaving the listener totally unprepared for the dramatic change into the second stage. Within a few seconds the song turns into another gear, becomes very loud and much more energetic, and eventually evolves into a crucible of howling guitars and heavy percussion before another sudden twist provides a fantastic conclusion.

Blue Bell Knoll is surely one of the most complete and compact songs the band have ever done. Everything fits together so well and so naturally that it would appear impossible to improve the composition any further. And although the band took two full years to come up with this album, tracks like Blue Bell Knoll made it well worth waiting for.

Athol-Brose

Although the Twins had found new directions on Blue Bell Knoll this does not necessarily imply all links with the past were broken. On Athol-Brose we find a nice mix of earlier techniques with more recent ones. The song appears almost inconspicuous at first hearing, but turns out to be very interesting.

The rhythm is especially noteworthy, since it is really going at two different paces. A fairly slow, heavy rhythm is apparent, but closer listening reveals a second, much quicker three time as well. This is something they had tried out earlier, for instance on Ivo from Treasure. The melody of the song is a beautiful one, but perhaps just because of these rhythmic complexities it may be quite difficult to remember.

While all this is going on the guitars play along merrily in a fairly light arrangement. In the first part the pitch of the song goes up and up until the chorus is reached, something which works so well that this is perhaps why the entire episode is played twice.

After that, exactly halfway through, there is an interlude. Liz tirelessly keeps the vocals going almost continuously, apart from a brief moment during which we hear a totally different electric guitar. The song then briefly returns to the main theme, this time at a steady pitch, which amazingly turns out to sound just as well. Further events await as Liz inserts some nice vocal trickery towards the end of the song, at which point we find ouselves to have come full circle since it features exactly the same percussion the song started out with in the first place.

Unlikely as it might seem, all the above is conjured up in just under three minutes, proving that the Cocteau Twins can perform an awful lot of magical tricks in no time at all.

Carolyn's Fingers

A few simple yet fabulous chords by an acoustic guitar provide the introduction to Carolyn's Fingers, but that is where simplicity ends, because this song is filled to the brim with many different instruments and special effects.

This track has so much happening at any one time it's almost impossible to describe all of what's going on. Take the vocal part. Liz starts out with some quite high notes (note the faint echo on that bit), but then later switches to much lower ones in the chorus (most bands would need two singers to achieve that). The two lines are obviously mixed together, and towards the end there are still more vocal lines to be heard.

Then there is the bass, not always clearly audible, but especially in the middle part Simon delivers some great chords. There is ample percussion of the light yet very busy sort so typical for Blue Bell Knoll.

The main guitar theme, as played in the first second, is repeated later on an electric guitar, both in elaborate and very trimmed down versions. We hear the occasional return of the acoustic guitar as well.

And despite all this complexity the structure of the song is simple. The main line and chorus, alternating with each other, are effectively just variations on the same theme. How is it the band were able to write a great song from just one single theme? Because there are so many instrumental permutations being performed between the beautiful first notes and the perfectly natural ending that most listeners will never even notice.

For Phoebe Still a Baby

Gentle guitars and soothing vocals - after the album's energetic opening tracks For Phoebe Still A Baby brings a considerable change of pace and gives the listener a chance to dream away in quiet reflection.

No fireworks in this song, and few examples of the intertwined melodies so typical of this album. If the title didn't already suggest it then the music itself certainly would: this effort is best described by the word Lullaby. The entire track is breathing peace and beauty, and one can easily picture Liz singing her baby daughter to sleep here. In a way the song is oddly profetic since Liz would actually give birth to a daughter only a few years later.

Interestingly For Phoebe Still A Baby is a look into the future in more ways than one. Motherhood would turn out to have a dramatic impact on Liz and on the band's music, as clearly testified by almost every song on Four-Calendar Café. The musical change was rather unexpected to most people, but listen carefully to this song and you know exactly what to expect when Liz starts thinking of little baby girls...

The Itchy Glowbo Blow

Blue Bell Knoll is noted for the bands radical change in style compared to most earlier work, and no track illustrates this better than The Itchy Glowbo Blow.

The song has just about everything the band were apparently looking for at the time. Very quick rhythms, rich instrumentation, several vocal lines, busy percussion, everything intimately intertwined with each other. In fact there are so many instruments to be heard one has a hard time figuring out exactly what is being played and at what time.

Despite the fast pace the song still manages to breathe a rather carefree attitude. This is mainly due to the fact that the volume never reaches seriously loud levels. All instruments, though played with real enthusiasm, keep well within line, never allowing themselves to dominate at any time, and Liz' vocals remain equally cheerful and pleasant.

Everything on this track sounds so positive that one might not even notice it lacks a clearcut melody. Liveliness and spirit are what this song is really about, so one way to look at The Itchy Glowbo Blow is to see it as the result of an elaborate and highly successful jam session.

Cico Buff

On Blue Bell Knoll the band apparently tried to find a balance between quicker and quieter songs. And it is pretty obvious that Cico Buff belongs in the latter category.

Everything in Cico Buff is happening at the pace of a quiet picknick on a hot afternoon. The song is like a gentle stream, flowing on without too many ripples or rapids, effortlessly delivering its steady rhythms and melodies. Liz' voice is particularly relaxed and carefree, as the song dreams on.

Halfway through Robin's guitar brings in a bit more action with a nice quitar riff, inciting Liz to a few more inspired notes as well. But peace is quickly restored and the track reaches the end without further interruptions.

Every album needs a few quiet songs. But in this case the band may have overshot the mark as Cico Buff is almost too inconspicous to be noticed at all.

Suckling The Mender

The atmosphere on Suckling The Mender is mainly determined by the vocals, and their style can be described by just a single word: joy. In the first few lines Liz seems to sing just perfectly calm, pure and at quite a high pitch. But then during the chorus she quickens up and starts radiating happiness at the world around her. A bit later we can even hear her express sheer jubilation. Whatever made her feel so great we will probably never know (although the song title could be a reference to a pregnancy) but it sure lead to a memorable vocal performance.

Compared with such fireworks it is understandable that the accompaniment most of the time plays second fiddle to Liz' voice. Still we can hear some lovely tunes that perfectly adapt their volume and character to match the vocals. The rhythm is very quick, adding to the cheerfulness of the song, the guitars all sound pleasingly acoustic, and a few times some sound effects are put to good use.

Once the vocals have ended the song has yet another sting in its tail. An instrumental part gives us the opportunity to admire the main melody once more, just as though the band rightfully felt it was strong enough to deserve another repeat. Finally we are treated to a marvellously constructed fade-out, where the instruments die away one by one rather then collectively fading.

But this song is about Liz and her wonderful singing. It is also a rare example of an uninhibited expression of Liz feeling happy - and given the result one can only feel sorry there are just a few of those around.

Spooning Good Singing Gum

Although it was given a pretty enigmatic title Spooning Good Singing Gum is a pleasant and not too complicated song. While there is hardly any change in the rhythm we are treated to a pattern of louder and softer parts .

Typically for Blue Bell Knoll we find no real drums or cymbals, but only light bits of percussion. Instead the main rhythm comes from a guitar, which sets the pace throughout. Liz sings quite relaxed most of the time, but has to reach for something extra in the chorus, where she needs to get on level terms with a sudden burst of extra volume from the guitar and some additional clapping and a few other sound effects.

As the song progresses the overall sound level steadily increases, but softer and louder episodes still keep following each other. Eventually a cracking guitar solo provides a lively finish to a track that never gets too excited but still easily manages to remain interesting through its variations in volume.

A Kissed Out Red Floatboat

Yet another strange title (Blue Bell Knoll would be a very strong candidate to win an 'album-with-the-weirdest-songtitles competition), yet another great song. A Kissed Out Red Floatboat features an unusual combination of contrasting elements - but to great effect.

The heart of the song is a quick background rhythm with a quieter main melody. The rhythm is super-double-quick, with light percussion, keyboard and electronic effects, echoes and distortion all mixed together - just what the band were trying to specialize in on this album. Perhaps it didn't quite succeed on every track - in this case the results are fantastic.

The instrumental parts make this a good song, the vocals turn it into a great one. Liz is in stellar form and delivers a wonderful melody. As usual we can't really hear a chorus of some sort, well, when you can sing like this who cares about a chorus? Liz sounds happy and confident and shows an impressive vocal range. And notice how the vocal melodies are totally different from the instrumental ones, and how she still manages to follow the rhythm to perfection.

An instantly recognizable intro, an elegant end - A Kissed Out Red Floatboat has it all. This enchanting song is definitely one of the most successful examples of the Twin's new musical approach.

Ella Megalast Burls Forever

The Cocteau Twins always had an uncanny talent for writing compositions to conclude an album. Songs like Musette And Drums, Donimo and Pur all perfectly transmit this end-of-the-show feeling. Even so one feels that with Ella Megalast Burls Forever the band produced the ultimate final track.

Listen to the first note of Ella and already you can't help feeling this is bound to be the final track. The majestic chords, the acoustic guitars, the solemn pace, they all contribute to a feeling of conclusion and departure. Liz' vocals, quiet and restrained, fit in beautifully. The song marches on serenely, and for a few minutes one might easily think it will just keep going for the rest of its duration.

Not so. With just over a minute to go an unexpected change of key gives the song an entirely different complexion. Suddenly the track is filled with expectation as we all wait for the song to return to its original key. The band keep us on the edge of our seats though, stretching the wait for as long as possible. With tension mounting they somehow manage to continue the song in this different key for what appears to be ages. Not until the last note do we finally experience the relief of the return of the original key.

To build musical tension is not uncommon, but to make it last as long as in Ella Megalast Burls Forever is a remarkable performance. It is therefore hardly surprising that such an exhausting experience marks the end of the album as well.